In 1962, China attacked India in a war that would define South Asian geopolitics for decades to come. Amidst an uproar in Parliament, during which many called for Jawaharlal Nehru’s resignation, Atal Behari Vajpayee, one of the leading lights of the right-wing Jan Sangh, expressed his full support to the beleaguered Prime Minister. From his point of view, calling for Nehru’s resignation in the middle of a full-blown war was impractical. His stand exasperated Acharya Kripalani into snapping that Vajpayee was a “Nehruvian in Jan Sanghi garb.”

Years later, another shaft came from Subhadra Joshi, the fiery Congresswoman who had managed to defeat Vajpayee in the 1962 Haryana elections. In an essay in Secular Democracy in 1970, Joshi stormed, “The thought never crossed any democratic mind that Vajpayee was only acting the liberal to provide cover to the RSS, so that this fascist machine could gain the time it needed to build adequate strength.”

The public life of a private man

Two very different descriptions of one man, but despite the hyperbole of the first, both were emblematic of just how difficult it has always been to encapsulate the enigma of Atal Behari Vajpayee. In his lifetime, nobody could – or dared – lift the veil with which Vajpayee shrouded what lay behind his carefully maintained public image, his role in the Sangh Parivar, and his contribution to the ascent of the Hindu right in India. In the first of a two-part biography on his life, Abhishek Choudhary takes on this task.

When a public figure is as private as Vajpayee was during his lifetime and when there are more myths than facts surrounding the man himself, this is a tall order. But in Vajpayee: The Ascent of the Hindu Right, Choudhary has succeeded admirably.

This first volume lays out 53 years of Vajpayee’s life, spanning from 1924 to 1977, and is written with a forthright but nuanced pen. Arriving in the world on Christmas Day in Bateshwar in 1924, Vajpayee grew up in a household that was as simple as it was austere. What the Vajpayees of Bateshwar lacked in affluence, they made up for in caste. The patriarch of the family was a priest, but his son, Krishn Behari – Atal’s father – had access to a better education and more independent perspectives on his world.

In Krishn’s view, India stood humiliated by successive Islamic and British conquests. Pride in the motherland could only be salvaged by sangathan – Hindu unity – in order to break the chains of colonial subjugation. This was a view that was as personal as it was political. For even as Krishn’s children, of whom Atal was the fifth, continued to be born, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Arya Samaj grew obsessed with the concept of sangathan. It was, for them, the driving need of the hour, far more important than the ideals of social reform that they advocated. But it was in Krishn’s outlook on India’s past and present – an influence closest to home – that we find the earliest traces of what would eventually be picked up by a young Atal.

Choudhary writes with sympathy and humour of a boy who was not known for his intelligence or his oratorical skills, but who loved his rasgullas. A clumsy fellow, he nearly drowned the one time he tried to swim. But Atal was the only son that Krishn chose to take with him to the Arya Samaj gatherings between Bateshwar and Gwalior and the only son who had – even when he was very young – a distinct talent for wordplay, especially in Hindi and Sanskrit, the languages he was taught at his mother’s knee.

A considerable portion of the early years of Vajpayee’s life is set in Gwalior. Here, the Hindu Mahasabha had a friend in Gwalior’s ruler, the chubby-cheeked Sir George Jivajirao Scindia, who was willing to turn a blind eye to its activities in his state. Choudhary presents Gwalior not just as a backdrop for Atal’s coming of age, but as a fascinating microcosm of the many ways in which the princely states engaged with different political forces in the run up to the transfer of power. Against this backdrop, we see a young Atal, riveted to an Arya Samaj version of history, which told of a once glorious India, a land of proud Hindus, brought to its knees by Islamic and British rule. There was a familiarly deliberate despair in this image and Atal was both enraged by its implications and imbued by a bitter victimhood.

Atal and the RSS

It was in Gwalior that Atal participated in his first RSS shakha, beginning a lifelong association that would influence his personality as well as his politics. Importantly, however, Choudhary points out that this did not mean a de facto introduction into the saffron brotherhood. It was, as yet, a strong stimulus, but it was one of many. The modern understanding of Vajpayee today is that of a man skilled at portraying himself as – to paraphrase Subhadra Joshi – the liberal face of a fascist machine.

Choudhary deconstructs this façade skilfully, allowing the reader a glimpse of a young man as prone to moral and ideological dilemmas as anyone his age would be. Given the politics of his hometown, his awareness of events as disparate as the Russian Revolution to the First World War, and with political and intellectual leaders of the likes of Gandhi and Marx on the national and international horizon, it was hardly surprising that Vajyapee was thoroughly confused about which ideological path to follow.

The late 1930s and early 1940s were a tempestuous time for India, as a country and as a colony. Not only was it dispatched to war without so much as a by-your-leave, but Congress – which had swept to power in India’s first provincial elections in 1937 – decided to pull its ministries out from power. In 1940, Jinnah called for a separate Muslim nation. That same year, France fell to Hitler and the Hindu Mahasabha saw the rise of MS Golwalkar, the chain-smoking botany lecturer who would hold the Sangh in thrall for years to come, with his call for an undivided India under Hindu rule.

By 1941, Vajpayee was a bauddhik karyawaah (intellectual worker) for the RSS, which was increasingly seen as a danger to security in an Empire at war, in a state that was a hotbed of political subversion. He was still ambivalent about his political ideas. Choudhary outlines the confusion – caught between the Arya Samaj and Marxism – that befuddled Vajpayee, pushing him later to admit that he was tantalised “by the communist ideas, a proletariat revolution.” But truthfully speaking, he was a little more than tantalised by the idea of participating in the overthrow of the Empire. Vajpayee’s arrest during the Quit India Movement wasn’t something he cared to talk about, but it did much to begin crystallising his image as a fiery young poet who wasn’t afraid of taking a political challenge head-on.

There are shades within shades to every personality. The deconstruction of these shades requires curiosity, empathy and detachment, as well as an understanding of the grey areas that form the landscape of the human mind. In Vajpayee’s case, the task of the biographer lies in situating these grey areas against the bloodied backdrop of shifting national politics, of integration and war, of communal bloodshed and Partition. In this early portrait of an unfinished young man on the cusp of his political stardom, then, we see shades of the son – embarrassed at his father’s decision to study at college alongside him; traumatised and despairing when both his parents passed away, within months of each other.

Choudhary acknowledges both grief and a lack of closure, allowing us to see the man that Vajpayee was becoming: lonely and desolate, caught somewhere between manhood and adolescence, sexually repressed and emotionally stunted, with his only outlet being his writing and his devotion to what being an RSS pracharak (full-time worker) entailed. Vajpayee’s ideological ambivalence would persist, unresolved despite his commitment to the Sangh, in his friendship with Sant Singh “Yusuf,” a popular trade union leader in Kanpur and with Ganesh Prasad, a communist known for his debating skills.

The essays of his early days as a pracharak reveal the inherent paranoia and lack of coherence that lay at the heart of the post-colonial Hindutva project. For instance, for Vajpayee, the joy of independence was laced with the despair of losing an “Akhand Bharat”. He carried that wound into his work with the Sangh, devoting his mental powers to ridding India not just of Muslims but of what he saw as the pro-Muslim Congress. As India inched closer to Partition, he accompanied his friends on night patrol, armed with lathis, to guard Hindu localities.

The rise of the Hindu right

In many ways, this is much more than just a biography of one of India’s most well-known right wing leaders. This is also a narrative of the rise of the Hindu right in India, at a time when politics was too fluid to be binaried into distinct sects of left and right. So when a reader chances upon colloquially used phrases like “pissed off,” it is as jarring to the eyes as much as it is to the mind. But these are editing quibbles and, in the face of the true intellectual weight of this book, they amount to very little.

Choudhary’s research is extensive, building on interviews and archival documents to map a network of RSS propaganda activities on the ground – a hefty amount of which was driven by Vajpayee’s own anguished polemic against Gandhi, Islam and his ideas for a Hindu India. Yet Choudhary’s eye never loses focus on how insidiously the RSS made its presence felt not just in national politics, but in the personal dynamics between the men who led independent India. The trust deficit between Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel is a thorny subject, and even thornier is the question of why Patel was soft on the RSS, despite being urged to be the exact opposite by Nehru and Gandhi. Even trickier to navigate is the line between secularism and communalism – not just in visions for an independent India, but for the post-colonial state.

For example, the ban on the RSS, after Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, may have been India’s first forthright expression of its secularism, but its implementation was faulty. There were too many legal loopholes, too much sympathy for the RSS among some Congressmen, and a dangerous ambivalence towards its existence from India’s Deputy Prime Minister. Choudhary addresses these issues squarely, putting the Hindu right wing front and centre in post-independence politics. This is often a subject that gets boxed into its own distinct category in the history of India’s freedom struggle. But in Vajpayee, the role of the right wing and its militant foot soldiers, is an intricate part of the warp and weft of national politics.

Correspondingly, Atal Behari Vajpayee’s emergence as the right man at the right time, literally and metaphorically, is sharply defined. The duality of his personality and politics would crystallise in the first fresh years after independence. On the one hand, he was exactly the kind of chameleon-like RSS pracharak Nehru abhorred, but on the other, Vajpayee was equally skilled at being the kind of erudite, popular politician that the RSS sorely needed at the time. This is not to say that his ascent was meteoric. Choudhary makes it clear that much of Vajpayee’s success came from the kind of grinding hard work that often went unpaid. It came from feverish days of long travel, a punishing schedule and an instinctive understanding of the issues that the electorate wanted to discuss.

By 1957, he was not only a master orator, but the face of the Jan Sangh, the forerunner of what would become the Bharatiya Janata Party. He was speaking passionately about issues such as the Hindu Code Bill, on the language debate and the protection of the cow, but he was insistent that the Jan Sangh was not painted in the regressive hue it had been portrayed by the Congress. In the wake of the Jabalpur riots of 1961, for example, in which the foot soldiers of the RSS and Jan Sangh were most definitely involved, Vajpayee continued to campaign for progressive measures, such as the banning of dowry. With Vajpayee holding the reins, independent India saw the legitimisation of an insidious – often poisonous – duality that would lay the foundation for how the Sangh Parivar functioned on the national stage.

A new era

Geopolitics and the warp and weft of national politics braid together for much of the second half of this book, with India taking its first independent steps in the realm of foreign and economic policy. Yet Choudhary does not lose sight of the fact that the dynamics driving political discourse were often personal. Much has been made recently of a quote in this book on Nehru terming Vajpayee a “highly objectionable person,” who was likely to create mischief in the troubled state of Kashmir.

It is easy enough to skew or bias quotations out of context, but in reality, political equations are nearly always deeply complex. Nehru, for instance, quite liked Vajpayee, seeing his potential as a bright intellectual spark in an otherwise regressive party. Equally, Nehru was aware that the same kind of poison for which he reviled the Sangh festered among his own party-men. Politics was, after all, rarely a cut and dried business.

For himself, Vajpayee respected the Prime Minister, appreciating that even in the most bitter moments, Nehru never lost a chance to build bridges across party lines if he could. As India moved into the height of the Cold War, Vajpayee spoke more and more on matters of international geopolitics, from nuclear proliferation to Tibet, from Pakistan to Kashmir. He was also travelling internationally, from the United States (where he was the first representative to visit from the Sangh Parivar) to Formosa (Taiwan). His sojourns abroad not only did much to expand his ideas of where India stood in the global balance of power, but also his ideas about the world itself.

Vajpayee’s naivete about what exactly a nightclub was is just one of the charming nuggets that pepper this biography. When he asked MK Rasgotra nervously whether it was a strip club, Rasgotra told him reassuringly, “Nagin nritya nahin hota hai!” (There is no naked dancing here!).

Wherever he went in the world, Vajpayee brought his understanding back home to the floor of Parliament. He argued for India’s non-alignment in an era of Cold War, though he maintained that there was no harm in reaching out to Western countries for aid, as and when the need arose. These were years when the Jan Sangh saw an insidious, fast-paced rise. In the wake of Nehru’s death, as non-Congress parties formed governments in several states, Vajpayee pressed for the Jan Sangh to join coalitions, and to insert itself into government departments and educational institutions. There would be no progress, he told the RSS frankly, unless ideology was not compromised for power. “Once they had attained power, they could mould the body politic as per their desire.” It was something a younger Vajpayee had picked up from Golwalkar. He had never forgotten this maxim, and through him, it would be the Sangh’s evergreen contribution to modern Indian politics.

Yet for all his prowess, Vajpayee was remarkably lonely. He was perfectly aware that for him, politics had become far more than a calling. It was, as he told the Hindi monthly Navneet in 1963, an “obsession” – one that he found hard to walk away from. But he had no one to come home to, no one to turn to and there was only so much that the saffron brotherhood could do for his sexual and emotional needs.

Enter Mrs Kaul.

For decades, her name has been either whispered or winked at. Nobody has really discussed Vajpayee’s private life, and here again, Choudhary treats his subject with immense compassion. The details are best read in the book, but the emergence of Vajpayee as a lover was a story sheathed in considerable, if muted, scandal. There were, after all, some things that respectable young men and RSS pracharaks did not do. Starting an adulterous affair was definitely one of them. Yet this strange arrangement, with the Kauls raising Vajpayee’s daughter as their own, continued for decades, giving Vajpayee an unconventional kind of emotional security. It was the anchor he had been seeking for years.

The first seven years of the 1970s brought Vajpayee into contact with Indira Gandhi, the kind of politician who slipped under his skin with her caustic tongue. He had been able to handle her father with erudite – if often heated – debates. But Indira Gandhi, at the height of her debating powers, was another kettle of fish. She was aggressive in ways her father had never been, her speeches both incisive and witty – and she made it clear from the start that she would have no truck with the RSS.

With India witnessing yet another war in 1971, Vajpayee remained consistent in his support of the Prime Minister in a time of duress. But in the aftermath of the birth of Bangladesh, as India slid down towards Emergency, Choudhary highlights the age-old fact that politics makes for strange bedfellows – such as the venerable JP Narayan and his association of necessity (or convenience, depending on where you stand) with the Jan Sangh. During the Emergency, Indira Gandhi didn’t blink twice at the thought of jailing Vajpayee and several other Opposition leaders. For a man who was never really in the fullest of health, it triggered underlying illnesses, causing him to take stock of his political career – one of the many times that he would have to do so in his life.

The creation of the Janata Party and its arrival to power in the wake of the Emergency was a new chapter for Vajpayee, in many ways. He was now Minister of External Affairs: confident, suave, and silver-tongued. But his association with the Sangh Parivar would always cast a shadow over his politics. Could Vajpayee be trusted to take India forward into what would undoubtedly be a new era, in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s defeat? Where did the Sangh stand on the political spectrum? As the country moved from the 20th to the 21st century, how central a role would Vajpayee play in legitimising the role of Hindutva on the national stage? These are but a few of the questions that Choudhary will be dealing with in the second part to this magisterial understanding of a human and political life.

Vajpayee: The Ascent of the Hindu Right, 1924–1977, Abhishek Choudhary, Picador India.