He was someone who kept reaching out to opposite ends of the political spectrum to find consensus, compromise and dialogue, says the author
Sagarika Ghose has been a journalist for over three decades. She is also a columnist, television commentator and author of two novels The Gin Drinkers and Blind Faith, a polemical work entitled Why I Am A Liberal, and the best-selling biography of Indira Gandhi, Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister. .
His recent work is Atal Bihari Vajpayee — India’s Most Beloved Prime Minister, which is published by Juggernaut Books. wknd. spoke to Ghose about the life and times of Vajpayee, who became India’s three-time prime minister and the first of India’s ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) since 2014.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
In about six years, you have straddled two contrasting worlds in Indira: India’s most powerful prime minister and now Atal Bihari Vajpayee – India’s most beloved prime minister? Give us an idea of the depth and research that has gone into this work.
Writing biographies means an immense amount of research because biographers can’t afford to get the facts wrong. Between the two biographies of Gandhi and Vajpayee, I must have read over 300 books, spoken to over 200 people, visited over 20 places and read thousands of pages of parliamentary debates, letters and articles written by my two subjects.
It’s hard work, but also rewarding. I’m an early riser, so I can do a lot of early morning work.
When Juggernaut Books asked you to write a biography of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, you were initially unsure and, perhaps, reluctant. What led to the change of heart?
I was reluctant because Vajpayee’s Hindu nationalist worldview is very different from mine. I am a liberal and a hard-line secularist. I changed my mind after reflection. I had interviewed Vajpayee several times when I was a reporter for Outlook magazine in the late 1990s. In 1998, I also co-wrote an Outlook cover story on Vajpayee The Swadeshi Nehru. My publisher, Juggernaut Books, was very insistent, so I went back to my old reports, read Vajpayee more deeply, and in the end came to the conclusion that I had enough sympathy for him ( if not okay) to get started on this biography.
Which of these epithets will best embody Vajpayee – liberal statesman, Hindutva icon, cultured poet, passionate democrat, moral compromise – and why?
Vajpayee was all that, but the best epithet that describes him is an accomplished politician who knew exactly where his political edge lay. He had enormous self-confidence.
Did Vajpayee use ambiguity to his political advantage and upset the opposition?
Vajpayee was an opposition politician for 40 years when Congress enjoyed overwhelming dominance. He did not become Prime Minister until the end of his life, when he was almost 75 years old. He was a very smart and cunning politician, flexible on ideology and tenaciously guarding his own image. Vajpayee was also rooted in Parliament; he was a parliamentarian for almost 50 years, almost permanent from 1957 to 2006-07. He always operated within parliamentary parameters and used ambiguity to discover the delicate middle ground of reconciliation between ideology and politics.
Vajpayee is known to speak with a forked tongue. Was his desire for power and his dazzling political ambitions guided by his characteristic trait?
He was an ambitious and calculating politician who was ruthless with his rivals. He was the ultimate political careerist. But there were many other elements to Vajpayee’s personality as well.
If you could tell two anecdotes that defined the highlights of his illustrious political career?
I would single out his founding of the BJP as a “Gandhian socialist” party in 1980 and his Lahore bus yatra in Pakistan in 1999 as the two highlights of his career.
Why was 2002 “Vajpayee’s annus horribilis and brought its own personal Waterloo”?
2002 was the year of the Gujarat riots when Vajpayee wanted to sack Narendra Modi, then Chief Minister of Gujarat, but was rejected by his party and obediently sided. From this time, his domination begins to fade and he loses immense credibility in the eyes of the public (see extract).
How would Vajpayee be remembered, as he would certainly be held responsible for failing the test of constitutional democracy so often?
Yes, Vajpayee often failed the test of constitutional democracy, but he should be remembered as someone who continued to reach out to opposite ends of the political spectrum to find consensus, compromise and dialogue.