Journalist and biographer Sagarika Ghose on how Atal Bihari Vajpayee should be remembered

He was someone who kept reaching out to opposite ends of the political spectrum to find consensus, compromise and dialogue, says the author


Joydeep Sengupta

Published: Thu 13 Jan 2022, 10:59 PM

Sagarika Ghose has been a journalist for over three decades. She is also a columnist, TV commentator and author of two novels The Gin Drinkers and Blind Faith, a polemical work titled Why I Am A Liberal, and the bestselling biography of Indira Gandhi, Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister.

Her recent work is Atal Bihari Vajpayee — India’s Most Loved Prime Minister, which is published by Juggernaut Books. wknd. spoke to Ghose about the life and times of Vajpayee, who became India’s prime minister thrice and the first from the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been in power in India since 2014.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

In six years or so, you have straddled two contrasting worlds in Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister and now Atal Bihari Vajpayee — India’s Most Loved Prime Minister? Give us a sense of deep dive and research that went into these works.

Writing biographies means an immense amount of research because biographers cannot afford to go wrong on facts. Between the two biographies of Gandhi and Vajpayee, I must have read over 300 books, spoken to over 200 people, visited over 20 locales and gone through thousands of pages of parliamentary debates, letters and articles written by my two subjects.

It is back-breaking hard work, but rewarding too. I’m a very early riser, so I can get a lot of work done in the early morning hours.

When Juggernaut Books commissioned you to write a biography of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, initially you were unsure and, perhaps, reluctant. What led to the change in heart?

I was reluctant because Vajpayee’s Hindu nationalist worldview is very different from my own. I’m a diehard liberal and secularist. I changed my mind after some thought. I had interviewed Vajpayee many times when I was a reporter with Outlook magazine in the late 1990s. In 1998, I had also co-written an Outlook cover story on Vajpayee The Swadeshi Nehru. My publisher, Juggernaut Books, was very insistent, so I returned to my old reports, read more deeply into Vajpayee and, in the end, came to the conclusion that I had enough sympathy for him (if not agreement) to embark on this biography.

Which of these epithets will best epitomise Vajpayee — liberal statesman, Hindutva icon, cultured poet, passionate Democrat, moral compromiser — and why?

Vajpayee was all of those, but the best epithet that describes him is a consummate politician who knew exactly where his political advantage lay. He had a tremendous self-belief.

Did Vajpayee use ambiguity to political advantage and threw the opposition out of the kilter?

Vajpayee was an opposition politician for 40 years when the Congress enjoyed a bludgeoning dominance. He became prime minister only at the end of his life when he was almost 75. He was a very clever and cunning politician who was flexible about ideology and tenaciously guarded his own image. Vajpayee was also rooted in Parliament; he was a parliamentarian for almost 50 years, almost a permanent parliamentarian from 1957 to 2006-07. He operated always within parliamentary parameters and used ambiguity to discover the tricky middle ground of reconciliation between ideology and politics.

Vajpayee is known to speak with a forked tongue. Was his desire for power and vaulting 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 strands to Vajpayee’s personality too.

If you could narrate two anecdotes that defined the high points of his illustrious political career?

I would choose his founding of the BJP as a “Gandhian Socialist” party in 1980 and his Lahore bus yatra to Pakistan in 1999 as the two high points of his career.

Why was 2002 “Vajpayee’s annus horribilis and brought his own personal Waterloo”?

2002 was the year of the Gujarat riots when Vajpayee wanted to sack the then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, but was overruled by his party and meekly fell in line. From this time onwards, his dominance began to fade and he lost immense credibility in the eyes of the public (see extract).

How would Vajpayee be remembered because he would certainly be held to account for having failed the test of constitutional democracy ever so often?

Yes, Vajpayee often failed the test of constitutional democracy, but he should be remembered as someone who kept reaching out to opposite ends of the political spectrum to find consensus, compromise and dialogue.

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