‘Vajpayee, the bachelor prime minister, had a demanding family life’

The former prime minister never married. Although he was never secretive about it, journalist Saba Naqvi offers an insider’s account of the bustling Vajpayee household in her book. An excerpt: 

The Soul of Vajpayee’s home was however a lady called, Mrs. Kaul who kept a rather low profile, and was only seen, and heard little even during official diners and public events those days. Their relationship seemed to have endured better than several legal and conventional marriages. Here are the simple facts as recounted in several Vajpayee biographies. Atal Bihari Vajpayee met Rajkumari Haksar, a distant relative of the Nehru-Gandhi family, during his student days in Gwalior (Madhya Pradesh). They had a life long association though she wed another man, B.N. Kaul. Meanwhile, even as Atalji became busy with politics, he kept in touch with the couple and often visited them in Delhi where Mr. Kaul taught at Ramjas College in the university.

I have no special insight into the personal life of Vajpayee and what it took to maintain such a long and enduring bond between two individuals who were not tied by the social convention of marriage. But the reason and the fact that it never came up for discussion in the press was also because Vajpayee wasn’t secretive about it in any away. He was devoted to Mrs. Kaul as she was to him, and he treated Namita like his own daughter. He never hid anything from the world.

I once ran into Namita after Vajpayee’s retirement and she, much like daughters who end up taking care of their parents far more sincerely than sons, said how looking after Baapji (as she called Vajpayee)and her mother took up quite a bit of her time and energy (Mrs. Kaul would pass away in 2014 at the age of eighty-eight.)

Vajpayee, the bachelor prime minister therefore had a demanding family life, and like a conventional householder, his surrogate daughter and others made their presence felt during his prime ministership. In 1996, Ranjan Bhattacharya was appointed Officer on Special Duty (OSD) in the Prime Minister’s Office, but after Vajpayee’s government fell prematurely within thirteen days, he reverted to his hotel marketing business. In 1998, Atal Bihari Vajpayee once again felt the need for a family member to accompany him through the gruelling campaign, and Ranjan obliged him by travelling with him.

After the official engagements got over, Vajpayee took Shiv Kumar along, first to the Grand Canyon and then to Disneyland. Shiv recalled how thrilled the 60-something Vajpayee was that day while queuing up for tickets and trying out ride after ride

While working on a profile of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, I had a long interaction with Ranjan and met him several times subsequently. In so far as travelling with him during electioneering was concerned, here’s what he told me, ‘Baapji is very reserved. He doesn’t communicate with many people. That’s why I was there to look after his personal needs, his health, etc. Baapji has always insisted I am just a family member. Nothing more. But yes, I’ll be involved when he is electioneering.’ Therefore, the 1998 campaign saw Ranjan constantly by Vajpayee’s side and amongst other things, screening uninvited callers and hangers on. I remember Ranjan saying how he was forced to change his number thrice in two months.

The surfeit of information that one could gather on Vajpayee was also proof of how open the first BJP regime was. As mentioned earlier, the party spoke, his family spoke and his friends also spoke. Ranjan was polite and diplomatic, while Namita was always forthright and blunt. She was a teacher in one of Delhi’s leading private schools and would often bring her students home. As I was working on a feature on the grand old man, one of the parent of her students told me, ‘My kids have run across the lawns, clambered onto Vajpayee. He may be the prime minister today, but to kids he is just nanaji who liked having them around and lived in a great big house with lots of men carrying guns.’

Between the guns and guards, there were two dogs called Sassy and Sophie, who would run around the prime minister’s house and also Ritu, the cat. Ranjan once told me how Vajpayee liked solitude and would sometimes go for long walks with his dogs, and often disappear with crime thrillers, that he purloined from Namita’s bedside table. Between serious political biographies and Hindi fiction, he also read popular English fiction. During the 1998 campaign, Vajpayee was seen reading John Grisham, and Ranjan confirmed that he had finished reading The Client and The Firm on the stump. There was so much of trivia that I collected about Vajpayee then, which seems impossible to get today.

Yet another permanent fixture in the Vajpayee household was the burly, mustachioed Shiv Kumar, who can be seen in many pictures of those days. Shiv Kumar had been Vajpayee’s man Friday for nearly three decades, even before he became prime minister, and herein lies a story about a deep bond of loyalty that Vajpayee shared within the Sangh Parivar. In 1969, it was on the instructions of the Jana Sangh that Shiv Kumar gave up his Law practice to work full time with Vajpayee and remained with him ever since. ‘I’ve been Atalji’s chaprasi (peon), cook, bodyguard, secretary and constituency manager all in one,’ he said while talking about his relationship with the prime minister. Work apart, Shiv Kumar, also shared some great memories with me, for example, this one time during a 1993 trip to the US. After the official engagements got over, Vajpayee took Shiv Kumar along, first to the Grand Canyon and then to Disneyland. Shiv recalled how thrilled the 60-something Vajpayee was that day while queuing up for tickets and trying out ride after ride.

That Atlaji loved to travel and for pleasure, rather than just making official trips, was well known. In this, he was a lot like Jawaharlal Nehru, who also loved foreign travel. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee whom one always saw dressed in a dhoti-kurta, was almost unrecognisable while abroad-the dhoti-kurta was swiftly replaced with bandhgalas, casual trousers and shirts.

While working on the profile, I even located a ‘Modi’ who turned out to be the prime minister’s close friend: his first name being Mukund, who was a New York city paediatrician with a practice in Brooklyn East and a home in Staten Island. At the time, he was a founder-president of the Overseas Friends of BJP, and he told me of Vajpayee visiting restaurants in New York (he apparently loved Mexican food) and going to catch Broadway shows such as Fiddler on the Roof, Evita, etc.

As for Vajpayee’s fondness for food, I can add my own two bits here. I once sat next to him at a dinner where he ate appam and chicken stew with great relish, and with such undivided focus that he was quiet all through, and would just nod or smile in reply to direct questions. That was his manner: pleasant, indifferent, easy, charming, all in one go. I figured that at times he was genuinely bored with having to answer questions. He excelled in nuances though, a mere suggestion, a joke in answer to a question. He had, I believe, a natural inclination for obfuscation and a genuine distaste for stridency.

(Published from Saba Naqvi’s Shades of Saffron: From Vajpayee to Modi with permission from Westland Books)

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