Amidst a vitriolic election campaign, Congress president Sonia Gandhi paid a quiet visit on Saturday morning to the residence of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He would have smiled. Not that the former prime minister or Mrs Kaul ever sought such a gesture, but there couldn’t have been a more powerful confirmation than Sonia’s visit of the standing of the woman who lived in Vajpayee’s home, and who died earlier on Saturday.
Rajkumari Kaul, Vajpayee’s constant companion of many years and the mother of his adopted daughter Namita Bhattacharya, died after a cardiac arrest at AIIMS. She had been admitted to the hospital on Friday. A press release described the 86-year-old as Vajpayee’s “household member”. Mrs Kaul is survived by another daughter, Nani, and granddaughter Neharika.
While BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi could not make it to Delhi given his tight campaign schedule, other top party leaders, including L K Advani, Rajnath Singh, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and Ravi Shankar Prasad, were present for the cremation in the capital. Vajpayee, who is bedridden, could not attend the last rites.
Also present at the cremation was union minister Jyotiraditya Scindia — the lone major Congress leader who attended. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was learnt to have offered his condolences to Namita over the phone.
BJP leaders often spoke of Mrs Kaul’s affectionate nature. “Bahut mamata se bhari huin thi,” Swaraj said, talking about her to Prasad on Saturday.
However, very few outside Vajpayee’s close circle had actually interacted with the woman who, befitting their unique story, was known just by her husband’s surname. The widow of a Delhi University teacher, who used to be a friend of Vajpayee’s, Mrs Kaul often fielded calls made to the BJP leader’s house simply saying “Mrs Kaul bol rahi hoon”.
Namita’s family lived with Vajpayee at 7, Race Course Road, while he was PM, and he called Namita his daughter. But he and Mrs Kaul never gave their relationship a name and, whispered rumours apart, were never pushed to do so.
Mrs Kaul’s friendship with Vajpayee began when they were fellow students at the prestigious Victoria College in Gwalior, now re-named Laxmibai College. A relative of Vajpayee told The Indian Express that it is unlikely they were classmates. Kaul’s family lived in the town’s Morar locality, he added, though all have since left Gwalior.
Vajpayee and Mrs Kaul came into touch again when she settled in Delhi after getting married to Professor B N Kaul, who later become head of Ramjas College’s philosophy department and warden of the college hostel. Vajpayee had earlier met B N Kaul when he contested from Balrampur.
“Aunty”, as Mrs Kaul was affectionately known, was much loved by hostel students who found a second home at her residence. Her warm-heartedness and generosity were legendary, and she often helped out students strapped for cash by paying their hostel fees. Several of Prof Kaul’s students went on to hold distinguished positions in government.
Later too, Mrs Kaul was known to arrange free medical treatment for those in distress through her contacts in government hospitals, particularly AIIMS. When her husband died, Vajpayee’s adopted her family as his own. Vajpayee felt no need to explain the arrangement even when Namita’s husband Ranjan Bhattacharya got into controversy during his prime ministership.
If the RSS disapproved, it did or could do little. That is another reason the former PM would have been chuckling Saturday. The Sangh may not be known for leniency towards the private lives of its Parivar, but present at Mrs Kaul’s funeral were RSS functionary Suresh Soni and RSS pracharak and BJP general secretary (organisation) Ramlal.