Sunday, 25 November 2018

The Right Shade of Saffron!

Review of Kingshuk Nag's book Atal Bihari Vajpayee: A  Man For All Seasons first published in The Book Review

In the year 1996 during an election rally in Lucknow when Atal Bihari Vajpayee stepped on the stage the excited crowd chanted, ‘Hamara PM kaisa ho, Atal Bihari Jaisa ho’. Vajpayee retorted in his characteristic style, ‘Arre PM chodo, pahle MP to banao’. What followed was another round of applause and cheers. Such rallies became Vajpayee’s trademark where he used wit and humour to strike a chord with his listeners instead of empty promises. In his sixties, Vajpayee had a huge following of youngsters who had been brought up in Uttar Pradesh and other States of the Hindi heartland of 1990s and had grown up listening to his poems and anecdotes. He could play with words in poetry as well as prose. He used more than just words—body, gestures, eyes, even pauses—to express himself. A number of times his pauses were more potent than his words. This gift went a long way in his journey as a respected parliamentarian and later the Prime Minister of the country. Atal Bihari Vajpayee: A Man for All Seasons is a first concerted attempt in English language to chronologically document the life and times of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The author Kingshuk Nag has been a journalist for the last 22 years with a prestigious national newspaper. Currently, in an editorial position, Nag had covered events in Gujarat and elsewhere during his role as a political reporter and written books on Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well as the Bhartiya Janata Party.
Nag met several senior politicians, bureaucrats and journalists to bring out the little known facts about Vajpayee. Given the dearth of literature about the man who is today considered one of the key movers and shakers of post-Independent politics of India, this book becomes an important reading for the scholars and practitioners of Indian politics. Though we can find events related to Vajpayee in many books on political history of post-Independent India, few provide such comprehensive and focused coverage about him.  

While this book is more journalistic in nature, it provides a unique insight into the political and personal life of Vajpayee. Due to lack of active documentation, several facts and facets about Vajpayee and his long political journey are not known even to long serving activists of the Bharitya Janata Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). For example, not many would know that Vajpayee had supported the candidature of Jagjivan Ram as the Prime Minister in year 1980. An offer was also made to Vajpayee and others to join the Janata Dal with the leaders suggesting that he will feel more liberated in the new party which was claimed to be closer to the ideas of Jai Prakash Narayan and Gandhi as compared to the BJP.
This book also offers a chapter that reveals details of Vajpayee’s personal life that have so far stayed out of the public view. However, Nag does not allow this part to overwhelm him. It was a proof of Atal’s master statesmanship that he never hid his association with a lady named Mrs Kaul and was never questioned about it too either by media or by his fellow politicians - both friends and foes. Nag sticks to facts in this regard and takes care to not impose words on one of the most inconspicuous yet important equation in the life of Vajpayee.  
The book also takes head on the controversy about Vajpayee being a freedom fighter. Nag chronicles the events that took place when Vajpayee participated in the Satyagrah of 1942 in his native place in Bateshwar near Agra.
Various facets of Vajpayee’s life and personality – as a young student, journalist, parliamentarian, foreign minister, family man, poet, orator, statesman and prime minister - have been dealt with authenticity in this book. However, there are two aspects that could have been given more focus, one of them being Vajpayee as an RSS Pracharak. Vajpayee became RSS Pracharak in mid-1940s and always remained one. He worked in Sandila near Lucknow among other places in this capacity and reiterated ‘RSS is my soul’. However since the dominant discourse finds it hard to see the two together, the tendency is to club his being an RSS man with his refusal to be dictated by the organisation, as this book also does.
The other aspect that could have received more attention is of Vajpayee a futurist who envisioned the ambitious National Highway Development Project (NHDP) project. The coming generations will know Vajpayee as the leader who planned the Golden Quadrilateral project that entailed a highway network running through major financial and cultural centres of the country. How this project was conceived and pushed past cynics could have been an interesting and informative read.
While ‘Atal Bihari Vajpayee: A Man for All Seasons’ successfully fills the gap in information about Vajpayee and emerges as among the best available books in English on the subject, it does not clearly answer the question of Vajpayee’s stand on Ram Temple. The book does, however, document Vajpayee’s statements in this regard given at different time, locations and contexts.
“Atal was able to balance the Ayodhya issue very finely….on 6th December 2000 – the anniversary of the Babri demolition – he said that the Ram Janmabhumi movement was the expression of national sentiments that was still to be realized’…….He told parliament, ‘I never asked for building a Ram temple at the site of the disputed mosque.’”
Nag credits Atal as pioneer of the politics of governance who contested the general elections of 2004 on that agenda. Though Vajpayee lost those elections but he set the tone of new politics for the 21st century India. Atal also harbingered the second generation reforms in the Indian economy and widened the gate for private companies to work in India.
The book establishes Atal as being the right shade of saffron, something that was accepted within the RSS cadres and also among non-Congress parties. It makes an interesting point for those who argue that BJP is essentially an extreme Hindu Right wing party that Vajpayee was chosen by RSS Sarsanghchalak Golwalkar over Balraj Madhok who was an extremist Right wing leader. The RSS leadership knew and understood that Vajpayee had the capability and the right mix of vision to lead the party and later the country.
Classical Political thinker Plato in his work ‘The Republic’ talks about the Philosopher King as ruler of the Ideal State.  In the contemporary scenario in India the closest version of a philosopher king would be a ‘Philosopher Democrat’ and Nag’s work establishes Vajpayee as the one. Despite not being a member of the Congress party which dominated the unipolar political set up for forty years, Vajpayee rose to greatness and became the first non-Congress Prime Minister of India in the 20th century who served full term. This book is written keeping this in mind and is a good read for all those who follow, observe or analyse Indian politics.

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