Books | Vajpayee Was in Many Ways a Bridge; Without Him There Would be no Modi

Abhishek Choudhary, author of Vajpayee: The Ascent of the Hindu Right, 1924–1977


Was in 
Many Ways 
a BridgeIndia does not have a very strong tradition of biography writing. Either they are salacious or hagiographic. How difficult was it to ensure that your book did not fall into either of these categories?

I haven’t read too many salacious biographies, but yes, we have far too many hagiographies around—dull, soulless, sycophantic takes, often on politicians and actors. I spent a lot of time demystifying the nuts and bolts of writing lives before writing the proposal; the genre has evolved considerably over the previous century. This included reading a few smart books on the theory and practise of life writing, as well as decoding the techniques of some of my favourite biographers (Patrick French and Katherine Frank, to name two very familiar names).


What was the research process like? What challenges did you face? Were there moments when you felt you had reached a dead end?

I hoped to juxtapose archival findings—using sources both primary and secondary—with detailed interviews with major and minor characters, and I more or less stuck to that plan till the end. Not having access to private papers was definitely the most serious handicap. But it also forced me to innovate and improvise; every new anecdote, photo, and letter acquired more worth than they would have had if I had access to private papers.

But I never felt I had reached a dead end. On the contrary, every single day spent in the archives taught me something new, even if it did not make it to the final manuscript. To tell you the truth, research was actually the most enjoyable and fulfilling part of working on these two volumes over seven years; writing was much harder.


The subject of your book was not only the prime minister of the country; he was also the most ‘revered’ political leader, even by those who were critical of the BJP. How much of a burden was this reality while writing?

Honestly, Vajpayee’s stature was never a burden—at least in my head. This may have had partly to do with the fact that by the time I commenced my research, he had retired from active politics and was living a vegetative existence. (If I were working on Narendra Modi or Amit Shah, or even Ajit Doval, I would probably be far more self-conscious.) I was worried mostly about getting my own facts and interpretations—some of which were rather provocative—right and about connecting the threads to come up with a coherent story on the parallel ascent of Vajpayee and the Sangh Parivar.


A judgmental and conservative society like India was able to look beyond the non-conformist personal life of Vajpayee. What could have been the reason for that?

Well, very few people outside the Delhi circles knew about his private life—that he had a lifelong partner. In the early decades, Vajpayee assiduously cultivated the public image of being an ascetic. On his election campaigns, he would find ways to talk about his apparent bachelorhood. Clearly, then, he was self-conscious of being seen in that manner. In the latter half of his career, he became a little more open. Yet, not many people knew that Namita Kaul Bhattacharya who lit her funeral pyre on 17 August 2018 was his real, biological daughter.


Your description of Gwalior shows it as an overtly Hinduised (and non-diverse) town with susceptibility towards clumsy propaganda. Was this a phenomenon unique to Gwalior and Madhya Pradesh, or could this be said for other north Indian towns as well?

I am not an expert on the princely states. But my broad sense is that by the late 1930s, some Hindu states were gravitating towards Congress and Hindu Mahasabha, and the Muslim ones towards the League—including Bhopal, which was right next to Gwalior.


How did Vajpayee’s image as a liberal emerge? How much was it real, and how much a carefully cultivated persona for political purposes? How correct was Govindacharya’s mukhauta allegory?

As a biographer I find the neat binaries—of him being a ‘liberal’ by some accounts, and that of Sanghi ‘mask’ by others—rather problematic. The latter Vajpayee was certainly a moderate, perhaps an enlightened moderate in many ways, but I would not go so far as to call him a liberal; he was most certainly not a liberal in a classical sense. The image of a liberal perhaps concretized due to his refusal to actively participate in the Ayodhya movement.

I also avoid calling him a mask, for calling someone a mask is a reduction of their complex personality. I discuss this in more details in the second volume.


Why was it important to write a dispassionate biography of Vajpayee at this time? What kind of relevance does he have in today’s politics?

The idea first came to me in late 2013, at a time of bitter succession struggles in the BJP. Many liberals I knew were nostalgic about the Vajpayee era. I thought I could study his life to understand the evolution of his ideological family, the Sangh Parivar, the most successful of the Hindu Right organisations.

Well, Vajpayee was in many ways a bridge; without him there would be no Modi. But his legacy has other aspects too. To name one, he was the most successful practitioner of coalition politics. If the BJP fails to secure less than, say, 225 seats in the 2024 general elections, they would be forced to make use of strategies perfected by Vajpayee during 1998–2004.


With this experience, do you see yourself as a professional biographer? Does any other politician interest you as a subject?

I guess I have picked up some skills that would be useful if I attempted another life (or a set of lives). But I am also equally interested in writing books on history and popular culture.

I think there is no such thing as a dull subject, mostly a bad writer or a lack of archival material. Speaking for myself, I have decided to never again attempt another political biography unless I have access to private papers. That said, I do find the Nehru-Patel relationship quite fascinating; and I know that if one spends time, it will be possible to have a radically new take on their association as well as the early years of our republic.



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