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Published by Rupa Publications India Pvt. Ltd 2017 7/16, Ansari Road, Daryaganj New Delhi 110002 Sales centres: Allahabad Bengaluru Chennai Hyderabad Jaipur Kathmandu Kolkata Mumbai Copyright © Kingshuk Nag 2016, 2017 First published in hardback in 2016 The views and opinions expressed in this book are the author’s own and the facts are as reported by him which have been verified to the extent possible, and the publishers are not in any way liable for the same. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, transmitted, or stored in a retrieval system, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher. ISBN: 978-81-291-4524-6 Seventh impression 2022 10 9 8 7 The moral right of the author has been asserted. Printed in India This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated, without the publisher’s prior consent, in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published.

For Aman Ki Asha, the cause of peace and harmony between India and Pakistan that Atal Bihari Vajpayee tirelessly strove for.






1. The Formative Years


2. Getting into Politics


3. Leading the Jana Sangh


4. Love, Life and Poetry


5. The Man and His Style


6. Janata Raj and the BJP


7. Witness to Ayodhya


8. Post Ayodhya to Prime Minister


9. Pursuing Peace


10. Dealing with the Alma Mater


11. Revving up the Economy


12. Exiting Power


13. A Statesman Par Excellence




was completing my book on the Bharatiya Janata Party—The Saffron Tide: The Rise of BJP—in the first quarter of 2014, that Kapish Mehra, Managing Director of Rupa Publications India, called me, asking whether I would like to write a biography of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. I pondered a while and realized that here was a man who had straddled the Indian political scene for half a century and been Prime Minister of the country, but there was no decent biography of his in English. This is what prompted me to agree to the proposal. Writing the biography was both easy and difficult. Easy, because there are scores of people who knew Mr Vajpayee well and many of them were ready to share their experiences with me. Yet, as I proceeded with my research on him, I got the feeling that although many people said that they knew Mr Vajpayee well, he was deeper than would seem superficially. His easygoing ways were only a veneer. He was a deeply contemplative man and had a keen idea of what India needed. Even though he was from the BJP, which the Western press describes as a Hindu party, he realized that for any government to be successful in India, it had compulsorily to hold on to the middle ground. This is how it had been for centuries.

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It is this middle ground that Mr Vajpayee attempted to hold on to in his long political career, eschewing extremities of any kind. Thus, he became the evergreen hero of Indian politics, liked by almost everybody. Vajpayee was not a unidimensional man: apart from politics, he took keen interest in music and was himself a poet. He was also fond of good food and, above all, of good company. This made the writing of the book an interesting project. Having lived in Delhi for a large part of my life—most of the time in what was part of the New Delhi parliamentary constituency—Atal Bihari Vajpayee has been a familiar figure since my childhood. I can personally testify that he always evoked positive reactions in the minds of people and was seen as an eminently likeable guy. However, I regret that it was not possible to meet him for this book, owing to his ill health. Apart from Kapish Mehra, I would like to thank the Publishing Director of Rupa, Ritu Vajpeyi-Mohan, for taking me through the project with ease. I am also thankful to my bosses at the Times of India for allowing me to undertake this project. Many people—too numerous to be named—were generous with their time and some shared deep insights. I would like to thank them all. Kingshuk Nag



November 1984, Atal Bihari Vajpayee heard a commotion outside his home in New Delhi’s Raisina Road. Although Atal was slightly indisposed, the decibel levels were loud enough to prompt the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of Parliament (MP) to come out of his house. On the opposite side of the road was a taxi stand and a mob had collected there. The frenzied mob, charged by the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi the previous day by her Sikh bodyguards, wanted to avenge her killing by targeting every Sikh in sight. Most of the taxis at the stand, like at all other stands in Delhi, were driven by Sikhs. The mob wanted to burn the taxis and lynch the drivers. Alarmed by the sight, Atal hastened to the other side of the road to stop the violence. It took some time, but Atal was a familiar figure in Delhi and commanded enormous respect. The ringleaders heeded his words and the mob dispersed slowly. Atal stood at the spot till the last man had left. Later in the day—after an emergency meeting at the BJP’s headquarters at 11, Ashoka Road, where he heard harrowing tales of the targeting of Sikhs from colleagues—Atal, along with longterm associate L.K. Advani,went to see Home Minister Narasimha

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Rao. The opposition leader was not satisfied with Rao’s lukewarm assurance that he would look into the problem; moreover, Rao was non-committal about deploying the army on the streets as Atal suggested. Disappointed, Atal came back to the party office and told local BJP leaders like Madan Lal Khurana and Vijay Kumar Malhotra to get the party cadres in the field to protect Sikhs and their properties. Whether the diktat was really followed by the BJP cadres or whether they stood as passive spectators at many places is a matter of debate. But the fact remains that Atal rose like a leader, trying to organize his party machinery to stop the violence while the law-and-order machinery stood inert and ruling-partyinspired mobs targeted hapless Sikhs—men, women and children— and destroyed their properties. A fortnight later, at the meeting of the national executive of the BJP, Atal openly said, ‘If at some level in the ruling party this feeling had not been there that the community to which the killers [of Indira Gandhi] belonged should be taught a lesson, the disturbances would not have assumed the dimensions that they did.’ For his temerity, Atal had to pay a heavy price. He had contested his previous two elections from the New Delhi constituency and realized that he would face certain defeat from his seat in the polls that were barely two months away. In fact, to ensure that Atal lost at any cost, the Congress planned to field Amitabh Bachchan from the seat. Reading the signs, he decided to move to his hometown Gwalior, but here, too, he came a cropper and lost the elections. After all, the BJP was then just a fledgling party, only four years old, and it had managed to win just two seats across the country. (Arguably, the BJP’s performance could have been better in those days of madness if its party leaders had made common cause with the Congress.) In the aftermath of his mother's assassination, Rajiv Gandhi had said, ‘When a big tree falls, the earth underneath shakes,’ giving courage to the marauders. Atal, on the other hand,

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did not make any such utterances for political gains, even though he could well have because the Sikhs, at least in those days, were not known to be part of the support base of the saffron party. As it happened, Atal’s silence could well have swung some of the Hindu votes towards the Congress. Atal did not envision the BJP as a purely Hindu party. In fact, it was at his insistence that the party chose Gandhian socialism and positive secularism as its credo at its launch on the Easter Sunday of 1980. For Atal, everything that was Bharatiya was Hindu; and in his reckoning, the term Hindu did not denote the followers of Hinduism but all those who lived in Bharat that is India. Quite early in his political life, Atal realized that India was a secular country with a tradition of tolerance for all faiths. By implication, this meant that no political party could survive and prosper in the country by espousing extreme ideologies. Thus, he wanted to fashion the BJP as a centre-of-the-road party which carried everybody along with it. In doing so, he was often at cross purposes with extreme elements of the Sangh Parivar that he was a part of. From his early political life, leaders from across the political spectrum realized that Atal had qualities that would make him universally acceptable. Jawaharlal Nehru recognized his great potential and often promoted him by inviting and introducing him to visiting dignitaries, even though Atal was then a first-term parliamentarian. Under normal circumstances, a prime minister of the stature of Pandit Nehru would not have been expected to shower so much attention on a first-termer, especially one who came from an opposition party and did not belong to the same social background as him. In another example of Atal’s universal acceptability, in the early 1970s, Pratipaksh, a journal of the Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP), carried an article highly critical of his role in the Quit India Movement. The writer, Arun Kumar, who was a party official, remembers how George Fernandes, widely known

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as a hot-headed, left-leaning trade unionist, was furious. ‘Why are you trying to damage the image of this leader who is shaping up well?’ Fernandes had asked Arun Kumar. (It must be noted here that this was much before Vajpayee and Fernandes came together in the Janata Party.) Even Indira Gandhi had sought Vajpayee’s opinion before sending the army to storm the Golden Temple during Operation Blue Star in June 1984. A few weeks before the operation, when Atal had gone to Bangalore for a naturopathy treatment, he had told Indira Gandhi over the phone that there must be other ways of flushing the militants out of the temple, and had warned her that the course of action she was mulling would have consequences. As later events showed, Indira Gandhi, hurtling to disaster, did not heed his advice, but she did seek his counsel nevertheless. Vajpayee, of course, admired her courage but did not agree with her politics. He compared her with Goddess Durga after the war for liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 and had no hesitation in saying so on the floor of Parliament. At the same time, he was often very harsh on Indira and sometimes even mocked her proclivity to concentrate all power in her own hands in a rhyme, often recited at public meetings in the 1980s: ‘Indira Gandhi number ek, number do hai kaun? Kewal number ek, number do kaun hai; naari number ek baaki sub das numberi!’ (She is the sole decision maker in her party, she is number one, two and three…the rest are all insignificant.) Another evidence of Atal’s likeability came on 26 January 1992, when he was conferred the Padma Vibhushan by the Congress-led Narasimha Rao government that was in office at the time—an act unusual in the fact that it is not common for ruling parties to bestow this honour on opposition party representatives. In fact, Narasimha Rao also appointed Atal as the leader of the official Indian delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) in Geneva in 1993. This was a crucial meeting because the Indian

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delegation had to face allegations of human rights violations in Kashmir. Perhaps it was this ability to invoke trust that made him acceptable to the bosses of his alma mater, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Atal’s lifestyle was far removed from that of a conservative pracharak; still, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, RSS bosses not only tolerated him but also promoted him. In fact, he was a kind of poster boy for the RSS, in spite of efforts made by political opponents to dislodge him through rumour mongering about his being hand-in-glove with top leaders of the ruling Congress party. Some rivals like Balraj Madhok espoused extreme ideologies but the RSS sarsanghchalak M.S. Golwalkar, in those heady days of the 1960s, had the practical sense to back Atal, realizing that only a man holding the middle ground could help the the political wing of the RSS (then known as the Jana Sangh) expand and consolidate. Incidentally, many analysts maintain that Golwalkar believed in extreme ideologies—some of which were clearly reflected in his writings. More than Golwalkar’s sagacity, Atal is worthy of praise for espousing a middle path in the Jana Sangh and for drawing a large part of his strength from the Arya Samaj. Although a reformist Hindu organization that believed in doing away with rituals and superstitions, Arya Samaj leaders like Swami Shraddhanand had come to grief a few decades earlier for aggressively promoting reconversions. Delhi, in the first two decades after Independence, was full of refugees who had lost their all in the partition. Many of them supported the Jana Sangh and the extreme elements harboured venomous hatred for the minorities. To carry along this support base and temper it was an extremely challenging job, but Atal did it without raising hackles. One of the first times this came to fore was in November 1966 when a group of thousands of unruly sadhus, supported by some Sangh Parivar organizations, held huge