Vajpayee: The Years That Changed India was not an easy book for Shakti Sinha to write. Sinha became Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s shadow in 1996, when he was leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. He remained with Vajpayee for three-and-a-half years, until he left New Delhi on deputation to the World Bank in Washington DC when Vajpayee began his third tenure as prime minister.
Vajpayee spent all his waking hours during those momentous years with either Sinha or Ranjan Bhattacharya, a family member, just a buzzer away unless one of these two men was in the late Prime Minister’s company. Yet, in the book, Sinha is modest about the role he played in helping Vajpayee in the discharge of his duties as head of India’s government and in his household.
Sinha admits that he was an “ordinary BJP worker” when he became private secretary to Vajpayee on May 16, 1996. The author was still a civil servant from the Indian Administrative Service and Vajpayee’s elevation to the most powerful office in the country “was a dream come true” for him.
At the impressionable age of 14, Sinha was impressed by Vajpayee the day he heard the rising star of India’s political opposition speak at an election rally in Ranchi. Like millions of Indians, who have listened to his oratory, the young Sinha, too, was mesmerised by Vajpayee. Despite all this subjectivity, the book is an honest attempt to assess the historic, if turbulent, 13-month tenure of the second Vajpayee government in 1998-99.
Having known Vajpayee professionally since 1978 and Sinha since 1997, I was curious to find out how the author would deal with his subject for what is essentially the first book of record about Vajpayee’s prime ministerial year as leader of the 12th Lok Sabha. As someone closely linked to the present dispensation in New Delhi, would Sinha choose expediency over objectivity in writing about the BJP that was cast in Vajpayee’s image for a decade, from the mid-1990s till he announced in December 2005 that he would retire from active politics?
The book does not disappoint on this score. Sinha does not shy away from forthright references, more than once, to the aphorism that Vajpayee was the “right man in the wrong party.” Even though the author does not endorse that view, the circumstances which recall that axiom add value to Sinha’s narration of episodes that shaped Vajpayee’s prime ministerial year in review.
The book is instructive for those Indians who believe that this country’s history began in 2014 and assiduously propagate such a myth, especially in the social media and public forums which are immune from fact-checking. Public memory is fresh that one of Narendra Modi’s first acts as prime minister was to shake the hand of Nawaz Sharif, having invited his Pakistani counterpart to the swearing-in of the BJP-led government in 2014.
Most Indians have forgotten that one of Vajpayee’s first acts after assuming office as prime minister in 1998 was to inaugurate an India-Pakistan hockey match at Delhi’s National Stadium. “Even before portfolio distribution and negotiations….,” recalls Sinha. “When Vajpayee walked on the turf, there was a roar from the crowd.” Many such anecdotes remind readers that both in foreign and domestic policies, the BJP has been consistent, whether under Vajpayee or Modi.
In the more contemporary context of the ongoing farmers’ agitation, an observation in the book is surprising. “In private, Vajpayee was quite appreciative of various aspects of Deve Gowda’s personality, especially his stubbornness and defiance,” writes Sinha. The Gowda government increased fertiliser prices in 1996 and all hell broke loose. Virtually every political party, including almost two-thirds of the Prime Minister’s own party MPs, demanded a roll back. “But Deve Gowda held firm. He saw this as a challenge to his authority as Prime Minister.”
The author writes as if he is talking to someone, which makes for easy reading about statecraft, a heavy subject otherwise. The book could have done with better editing in places. Overall, the impression is that there is much that is left unsaid about Vajpayee given the deep proximity between the author and his subject. “Vajpayee deserves to be studied a lot more.” That is a welcome hint from Sinha that another book on Vajpayee, perhaps, about his final prime-ministerial tenure, may be on the cards.