Book Review | Vajpayee never a liberal but Hindu Right's first spin doctor
Atal Bihari Vajpayee has remained a puzzle in his politics and in his personal life. And it led to the popular myth about his being a liberal in a right-wing party. And on the other hand he was not much of a conservative in the intellectual sense. He stopped short of being a liberal or a conservative. The only certainty was that he was not ever a progressive in the leftist sense of the term. That makes him an undecided person rather than an enigma. Abhishek Chaudhary in setting out to get the facts of Vajpayee’s life and political career has brought to light the little details that should help us form the big picture of the man.
He in inclined towards learning and he makes his way through school and college up till his post-graduation in Hindi. We really do not know what books he read in Hindi, what authors and poets left an impression on him except for the fact that he shows a flair for debate and a command over Hindi. He writes poems but it does not seem that they withstand literary scrutiny but the poems made him popular among the people who followed RSS. It is his command of Hindi that remains his strong point after he joins the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as a full-time pracharak, and it is this that makes him the personal secretary of Syama Prasad Mookerjee, and later makes him a promising member of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS). He was not a founding member of the Jana Sangh. He was still in the wings as an editor of the RSS publications. His apprenticeship in the RSS is an arduous one, where he travels to towns and villages in Uttar Pradesh without money and comfort. And the same trend continues when he is tasked to bring out the various RSS publications, from Rashtradharma to Panchajanya to Veer Arjun.
In many ways he played the role of a missionary worker, an evangelist, in the cause of RSS. It would be inaccurate to call it Hindutva because Vajpayee did not seem to absorb the basic tenets of Hindutva and made it his own. He used the Hindutva arguments in his writings, in his speeches and in his poems but he never gave the impression that he cared much for the beliefs. That is why, he was able to change, change his arguments as the occasion demanded. So the man who said that the Muslims who remained in India were fifth columnists in 1948 could then argue that there is need to admit Muslims into Jana Sangh, something that the fundamentalist Ram Rajya Parishad refused and thus broke the possibility of bringing together all the right-wing Hindu political organisations. It was on this point that Syama Prasad Mookerjee left Hindu Mahasabha. And Vajpayee would object to Nehru clubbing Hindu Mahasabha and Jana Sangh.
In the 1950s, he did not have to wait long to be inducted into the political structure because there was not too much competition and he brought to the job the credentials of a RSS pracharak. And there were not many takers for a parliamentary contest in the fledgling party. So he was fielded for the Lok Sabha by-election for Lucknow as Vijayalakshmi Pandit resigned when she was given an ambassadorial assignment, but lost the election. In 1957, he won from Balrampur though he lost from Mathura.
It is his early start in parliament that made him understand that issues were of greater relevance than ideological positions, and he was a quick learner. So as a man from the opposition benches, it was his job to corner the government on any and every issue. Vajpayee had to diversify his repertoire. But of course he was most comfortable with the Hindu cultural nationalism issue. He had come far from the days in the late 1940s when he found the song from Raj Kapoor’s Barsaat song, “patli kamar, tirchchi nazar” to be vulgar and corrupting.
The most interesting part of Vajpayee story in this volume — it is a two-volume work — is his ambivalent relationship with Nehru, with whom he crossed swords on the floor of parliament, but he also looked up to him. And Nehru seemed to have been indulgent towards him too as when he put Vajpayee on the Indian delegation to the UN in 1960 and Vajpayee was all admiration for Nehru at the UN, and he also toured the country, watched the Nixon-Kennedy televised presidential election debate, and discovered Chinese food which remained his favourite for the rest of his life.
It is tempting to say that coming from a lower middle class Brahmin background, it was but natural for Vajpayee to have found his home in right-wing politician. But it would be an unfair inference. Vajpayee had enough exposure to the world of ideas, but he did not seem to be interested beyond a point. That is why he could not be an ideologue. Perhaps, he can be said to be the first of spin-doctors of the Hindu right, where conviction was not necessary, articulation was. Vajpayee did the job well in this early part of his career.
Vajpayee: The Ascent of Hindu Right 1924-1977
By Abhishek Chaudhary
Picador India/The New India Foundation
pp. 401, Rs.899