In the last weeks of 1999, I was the recipient of a phone call from a Delhi bibliophile I knew slightly. The Prime Minister’s family, he said, felt that the time had come to suitably commemorate, in cold print, the life and times of the great man. They had asked the bibliophile, as the best-read person in their circle, to suggest a suitable biographer. He thought of me, for I had just then published a life of the anthropologist Verrier Elwin. Would I be willing to write a book on Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee?

When I demurred, the bibliophile assured me that there was no intention to ‘exploit’ my services. I would be well rewarded. The Oxford University Press had already agreed to publish the book. Besides, once it was out, government departments would order hundreds of copies each.

I answered that my hesitations stemmed not from a love of money but from an awareness of my inadequacies. True, I had just published a biography, but that was of an obscure Englishman who happened to marry an adivasi and write a few books. But how did that equip me to tackle the life of someone as elevated as our pradhan mantriji?

This was the language of exaggerated deference, or adab, characteristic of the north Indian doab where both Mr Vajpayee and I grew up. It worked, in that my interlocutor did not further press the point. In truth, I declined the assignment because I knew that to write about men of power, in power, is a mug’s game. The family, and coterie, would expect a picture of cloying admiration. The biographer would enjoy no autonomy or independence whatsoever.

As it happens, not long after I declined this offer I was offered a commission which I accepted. This was to write a history of independent India. While working on this book, I have come across all kinds of intriguing characters. One of them is Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, whose political life spans almost the entire period of Indian independence.

Early in my research, I came across a police report on a meeting in New Delhi in 1952 organized by the then fledgeling Jana Sangh. This noted that a passionate speech had been made in praise of Lord Krishna by ‘Atal Behari’. The surname was not mentioned, so we do not know whether it was indeed our man. It might have been, for although he was but twenty-four, he had attracted the attention of the Jana Sangh’s founder and main leader, Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee. By this time, Dr Mookerjee’s chief preoccupation was the state of Kashmir. He had joined hands with a popular movement, led by the Hindus of Jammu, against the government of Sheikh Abdullah. They wanted the special status of Jammu and Kashmir to be revoked, and Abdullah himself to be removed. This was however rejected as a motivated, indeed communal, demand, by the Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru.

In the summer of 1953, Dr Mookerjee decided to visit Kashmir himself. On the 8th of May he boarded a train at Delhi Station. Significantly, the young Atal Behari Vajpayee was one of only four colleagues asked to accompany him. Atal Behari accompanied his leader to Pathankot, but did not go with him into the Valley, where Dr Mookerjee was arrested. It was in jail that he fell ill and died, sparking a chain of events that culminated in the arrest and removal from office of Sheikh Abdullah.

Four years later, Atal Behari became a member of the Lok Sabha. Thereafter his rise in the party was rapid. In a now little-known essay of 1960, Vajpayee set out his understanding of what the Jana Sangh should be. As he saw it, his party must be open to ‘all Indian citizens irrespective of creed or sect’. As he explained, ‘the decision to keep the party’s doors open to all citizens irrespective of religion or sect is not prompted by any considerations of political expediency, as some critics would have one believe.’ To the contrary, insisted Mr Vajpayee, ‘the Jana Sangh holds that the state, by its very nature, is a secular body, and therefore it should not align itself with any particular religion or sect. The party, he wrote, ‘is opposed to politics being linked with religion, and also feels that religious institutions should confine their activities to their particular fields. In the partition of the country, we have already had a grim experience of the consequences of mingling politics with religion’.

Thus Mr Vajpayee, writing in 1960. What he said then appears to be at odds with what we think is the philosophy, and know to be the practice, of the Jana Sangh and its successor parties. And of its affiliates. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh believes neither in a secular state nor in not aligning itself with a particular religion. Indeed, in the very next year, 1961, the RSS and the Jana Sangh were incriminated in a major riot in Jabalpur. Over the following decades, as communal conflict intensified, the ‘sangh parivar’ was found to have played a role—sometimes a key role—in riots in places as far-flung as Jamshedpur, Moradabad, Bhiwandi, and Hubli.

How far Mr Vajpayee has been in step with them it is hard to tell. Did he see the demolition of the Babri Masjid as an egregious example of ‘mingling politics with religion’? (It was reported, at the time, that he felt ashamed at the demolition, but was instructed by his party not to make his shame public.) And what about the attempts, just prior to the last elections, to woo Muslims into the BJP? Were they prompted by a genuine wish to keep the party open to all regardless of creed, or merely by ‘political expediency’? And what of the critical remarks he has made from time to time about Narendra Modi, remarks later denied or withdrawn? In sum, is Mr Vajpayee a liberal thrown among fundamentalists, as some people believe, or is he simply a smooth-talking ‘swayamsevak’, a mask that shall not deceive?

Mr Vajpayee’s has been a long career in politics, and a most intriguing one too. It was he who had a last supper with Shyama Prasad Mookerjee before Mookerjee crossed into Kashmir, never to come back. It was he who, as early as 1960, sensed that restricting a party’s vote bank to just one creed did not make electoral sense. It was he who, when the first non-Congress Government came to power at the Centre in 1977, held the important post of Foreign Minister. And it was he who headed the first non Congress Government to complete a five year term in office. In this time Mr Vajpayee has had much to say or do with regard to some pretty momentous political events—such as the bomb blasts of 1998, the Pakistan peace initiatives of 1999, 2001, and 2003-4, and the Gujarat riots of 2002.

The political career of Atal Behari Vajpayee has had a profound bearing on some crucial turning points in the history of independent India. Of no one else, save Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, could one say that, for both good and ill, the life of the individual has so closely mirrored the life of the nation. Those other worthies have already had their (multiple) biographers. Mr Vajpayee awaits his. If a suitable candidate presents himself, I will be happy to introduce him to that loyal bibliophile in Delhi. But he must not be deterred by the mere fact of the subject being out of power. For while his book will no longer be bought by government offices, it will still be most keenly read outside them.