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Book Review |Rajkumari Kaul: The other half who shaped Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s politics

For obvious reasons, the RSS, which endorses celibacy, had issues with Vajpayee’s relationship with a ‘powerful’ woman who made him ‘far mellower, secular, and cosmopolitan than he initially was’.

November 28, 2020 / 09:06 AM IST

In 1957, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then a Lok Sabha MP, met Rajkumari Kaul who was married to Delhi University professor BN Kaul. Years ago in 1941, the two had been to the prestigious Victoria College in Gwalior.

Rajkumari Kaul was Vajpayee’s companion for more than four decades, and also mother to his adopted daughter Namita Bhattacharya. Yet, she remained publicly invisible, notwithstanding the whispered rumours about her relationship with the former prime minister.

Author and academician Vinay Sitapati’s new book Jugalbandi : The BJP before Modi that traces the 100-year-long story of the RSS, the Jana Sangh, and the BJP, talks about the political relevance of Rajkumari Kaul in shaping Vajpayee’s politics.

Ms Kaul, as she was affectionately known, was born in a Kashmiri Pandit family as Rajkumari Haksar in 1921.  She had told a friend, before meeting Vajpayee for the second time in Delhi, that the two were attracted to each other during the college days but there was no formal affair.

The heart of the relationship between Vajpayee and Rajkumari, however, was intellectual, the book argues.

“..Rajkumari was fluent in English, well read and, unlike Vajpayee, came from an urbane family,” writes Sitapati in his second book. His first book was a biography of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao -- Half Lion—How PV Narasimha Rao transformed India.

The author, who teaches political science at Ashoka University, talks about how Rajkumari had a liberalising influence on Vajpayee’s life.

“As a Kashmiri Pandit in the Delhi of the 1960s, she had got to know the ‘Kashmiri Mafia’, i.e., the Pandit bureaucrats and officials who surrounded first Nehru, then his daughter— Rajkumari Kaul was after all a blood relation of Indira Gandhi. All this added up to a confident liberal,” he says in the book.

For obvious reasons, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which endorses celibacy, had issues with Vajpayee’s relationship with a ‘powerful’ woman who made him ‘far mellow, secular, and cosmopolitan than he initially was,’ according to a family friend of the Kauls, quoted in the book.

But, there was a difference of opinion among the leaders. Balraj Madhok, the founder of Jana Sangh and Nanaji Deshmukh, the Jana Sangh treasurer, wanted the two to get married. For MS Golwalker, the more religious RSS chief, the relationship, was unacceptable. He ordered Vajpayee to break the relationship off around 1965. Vajpayee refused.

Vajpayee was bed-ridden when Rajkumari Kaul died of cardiac arrest in 2014. And when he died in 2018, Rajkumari’s daughter Namita lit the pyre. RSS functionaries attended her funeral.

Based on private papers, party documents, newspapers and over 200 interviews, the book published by Penguin Random House India, employs the partnership between Vajpayee and Advani as a vehicle to study the BJP: from an ideology in the early 20th century, to a movement and finally a government from 1998 to 2004.

The standard view of the Vajpayee-Advani partnership is that one was a moderate and the other was a hardliner. But Sitapati argues that it was a bit of a good cop and a bad cop act. “Both of them were actually acting a little bit,” Sitapati said in a recent interview to Moneycontrol.

Vajpayee, he says, was thought of as a right man in the wrong party. But the book tries to muddy that impression a little bit.

Though the book largely tries to explain how Vajpayee and Advani worked as a team despite differences in personality and beliefs, it also tries to answer how does the Vajpayee–Advani partnership compare with the one between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah

“Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah are more astute in catering to low castes microscopically as well as attacking Muslims macroscopically,” it says.

Though Vajpayee and Advani were as alive to the demographic anxieties that animate the recent Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens, they would have both balked from such overt hostility to India’s 200 million Muslims, Sitapati writes.

“If today’s BJP is less upper caste than the BJP of old, it is also more anti-Muslim,” he observes.

Gulam Jeelani
first published: Nov 28, 2020 08:05 am