CONTEMPORARY HISTORY is an important and interesting stream, but the pertinent question is, what is the right time to write it? It is commonly held that there should be a distance between the writer and the history he writes, or else bias creeps in. If one is to go by this maxim, no contemporary history or biography would ever be written. Second is the problem of the government opening archives related to official documents and papers at the right time, something that doesn’t happen in this country. The result is that most biographies turn into hagiographies or have to rely on secondary sources. These are the times of biographies of some leaders who have shaped contemporary times, and their actions are very much in our memory. PV Narasimha Rao, the architect of India’s economic reforms in 1991, is one of them and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the country’s first prime minister from a non-Congress party to have ruled for more than five years, is the other.
While the writer of the biography of Rao had access to his private papers through his family, in the case of Vajpayee, this book by Ullekh NP is based entirely on secondary sources—media reports, interviews with people who knew Vajpayee, etc. This is the biggest handicap of the book, along with the fact that Ullekh never got to meet Vajpayee while he was in power.
The other question to ask is, whether it was the right time to write a book on Vajpayee? The sense one gets after reading Ullekh’s work is that it could have waited another couple of years. The Vajpayee era is too recent—he lost power in May 2004—to be woven and presented in a historical context since our memory is still fresh with the events of those times. In some sense, going through the book is like going through old news clippings. The title is also misleading, as there’s no untold story that springs here.
That Vajpayee was a paradox is well known. The fact that he was used to making statements that could be interpreted both ways is also well known. Whether he utilised the party or the party utilised him is also something that can be debated ad nauseum. Vajpayee’s era was known for deepening of economic reforms, while taking along a coalition of some 13 parties. It was widely expected that he would return to power in the 2004 general elections, but even the eventual victor—the Congress—was surprised by the result when the opposite happened. Some years later, Vajpayee fell ill and receded from public life.
The section detailing the early years of the leader is the most interesting part of the book and will perhaps be liked by even those who were around during his reign. What Ullekh interestingly brings out is that Vajpayee followed the maxim of never forgetting and never forgiving. Quite like current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Vajpayee never forgot a slight and always settled the score. Anybody who crossed swords with him or slighted him was systematically eased out. RSS leader KN Govindacharya, who was on deputation to the BJP, is one such example.
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Today, when the same party is in power and its supreme leader Modi exhibits the same trait, this similarity does seem interesting, considering that despite this similar trait, Vajpayee evoked great respect across the political spectrum, even from his adversaries, something which is not the case with Modi.
Another aspect that comes out nicely is Vajpayee’s ascendance to power in the early years. One can attribute this to luck too. Some of Vajpayee’s early speeches have been quoted, which show that he wasn’t really the secular person as seen by the Opposition, which also called him the right person in the wrong party.
What was unique about Vajpayee was his oratory, which was laced with humour and great presence of mind, along with mastery of the Hindi language. But Vajpayee never made fights personal and kept personal relations above politics. However, the party never reaped any benefits from his personality. In the 1984 general elections, the party got just two seats, though it had contested the largest number of seats in its history. To be fair, the elections were held after the assassination of Indira Gandhi and there was a huge sympathy wave in favour of the Congress.
The credit for the rise of the BJP and what it is today largely goes to Vajpayee’s comrade, friend, number two and even rival LK Advani. The relation between the two has been dealt with nicely in the book, but again, there’s nothing that is not known. That it was Advani at the height of his popularity who proposed Vajpayee’s name for PM is well known, but the book puts it in proper context.
Vajpayee’s dilemma post the Gujarat riots is also well known and the book, while describing the incident, is not able to provide any fresh insight. However, one can deduce from Vajpayee’s personality that he was not prone to do things that were radical, so it’s quite possible that he played to both galleries—the hardcore, as well as the secularists.
Perhaps, the writer could have chosen a theme to pen Vajpayee’s biography rather than basing it on his general life and reign. Still, the book is an interesting read, as it has been written in a lucid style.