Sagarika Ghose’s book on Atal Bihari Vajpayee gives a glimpse into the lesser known aspects of his life

At the launch in Chennai, the author of ‘Atal Bihari Vajpayee - India’s Most Loved Prime Minister’ says Vajpayee was very much rooted in the cohort of well spoken parliamentarians of the 1950s and 60s

February 05, 2022 07:36 pm | Updated February 11, 2022 10:35 am IST

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was said to be an incredibly funny man. The whisky-drinking, meat-eating, Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh member and former Prime Minister of India was always armed with a quiver of witty one-liners: from Bollywood inspired lines such as Mere Angne MainTumhara Kya Kam Hai ,to verses he penned himself. And he led an unconventional personal life, but unlike many others, never shied away from acknowledging it. Be it his odd relationship with his father — who joined college at the same time as Vajpayee and were ideologically opposed to each other — or his companionship with Rajkumari Kaul, with whose family he had an uncustomary living arrangement.

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“He was almost bohemian in his personal life,” says journalist, news anchor, and author Sagarika Ghose, who’s latest biography Atal Bihari Vajpayee - India’s Most Loved Prime Minister gives an in depth look into the life and times of the erudite statesman, along with some of his poems.

At an event organised by The Duchesss Club in Chennai today, the book was launched, with Mukund Padmanabhan (former Editor of The Hindu and guest of honour for the day) receiving the first copy. Sagarika was in conversation with Rupa Ramamurthy, a member of the Club, as they discussed excerpts from the book.

It took the author three years to complete the biography. “The research was daunting,” says Sagarika, who had to go through all the Parliament speeches from the 1950s to the 90s, Parliament records, Vajpayee’s speeches, his written work, the pronouncements made by his Government, minutes of party meetings, proceedings of annual conferences, party periodicals, the large number of bills he moved in Parliament...the list is exhaustive. This was followed by around 50 interviews with members of the RSS and the BJP, and his close aides.

“I gained access to NM Ghatate, Vajpayee’s close friend for 60 years. He gave me two of his unpublished manuscripts on Vajpayee and that proved a very good source,” says Sagarika adding that in a biography you cannot afford to go wrong. “You can’t compromise on the research.”

Sagarika admits that initially she was reluctant about the book that was commissioned by Juggernaut Books. Given that she did not share the same beliefs as Vajpayee, she was wondering how she would get the empathy. According to the the seasoned journalist, there were many instances like the Gujarat riots of 2002 or the demolition of the Babri Masjid where he failed the test of constitutional democracy and also many occasions where he upheld it. “He sacrificed political principles for power. He was very anguished about the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and communal riots. He kept voicing his views but never acted on them,” she says.

‘An iconoclast’

Sagarika had interviewed him in the past. “He used to see me and say khatra (danger),” she laughs. In preparation for the biography as she started reading about him and what he wrote, she realised he was an iconoclast. He was irreverent about ideologies.

She further states that he joined the RSS but shunned the orthodoxy and zealotry that is often the mark of that school of thought. “He was being assailed by his own ideological family who thought he wasn’t being rigid enough,” she adds. The ideological brotherhood he represented was at loggerheads with him. Vajpayee repeatedly reached out to Pakistan. In 1997 he did the Lahore bus yatra; the Agra summit in 2001; reached out to Musharraf. He was never conforming with what the RSS wanted him to do, she recounts.

The author also says that Vajpayee was opposed to polarisation. Today our lives are so polarised that dialogue is no more possible between the two camps. But he believed you could be true to an ideology and still have friends. “He reflected a liberal principle which was that you can have friendship, love, comradeship and warmth even with people you don’t agree with. He was great friends with Hirendranath Mukherjee of CPI. He was someone who believed in dialogues. Don’t rage at people via Twitter or WhatsApp. He believed in coming out of the shell and reaching out to the other side,” she says, adding that as a liberal she appreciated this about him.

Sagarika says she has a sneaky feeling that if Vajpayee were to read this biography he would like it. This book is a part of a trilogy of books on Prime Ministers of India. The first one in the series was on Indira Gandhi. As for the third one, she would like to keep us guessing.

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