In the late 1980s, when I was a college student and the Bharatiya Janata Party just a vestigial appendage of the Indian body politic, I had the dubious honour of seeing Atal Behari Vajpayee waiting for a flight. The place was Silchar Airport, a tiny landing strip in the north-eastern state of Assam. I was going back to college, while the man who would become prime minister was returning from the border town of Karimganj, where he had gone to raise the spectre of Muslim infiltration from Bangladesh.
I remembered reading that Vajpayee was a good orator, but I doubted that either his flowery Hindi or his party's total of two seats in the Assam parliament had impressed the rustic Bengalis of the region. His very presence in this forgotten corner of the country was, in fact, testimony to a couple of things. It indicated the political insignificance that had reduced the BJP to picking up the crumbs left by other parties, particularly Congress, and it revealed the obsession with the Muslim presence in India that would finally become a national agenda, transporting Vajpayee from that forlorn airport in Silchar to the throne in Delhi from where he rules today.
In between lies the rubble of a decade, including the fragments of the demolished Babri masjid (the mosque in Ayodhya built on the disputed site of a Hindu temple), the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat this year, a state of perpetual war with Pakistan, a proposed Vedic curriculum for the roughly 30 per cent of Indian children who manage to attend primary school, unchanging rural poverty, labour conditions that have turned India into a giant sweatshop, and a social fabric riven by mistrust and greed. And then there is the poetry Vajpayee has written to make sense of his world, "for strength to face the challenges of life".
This poetry comes to us in a slim bilingual edition, the translations into English from the Hindi by the Indian diplomat Pavan K Verma, and accompanied by a stern caveat from him: "The Prime Minister of India is not the author of this collection of poems. The author is, for the greatest part, A B Vajpayee, the individual." Although this is an utterly disingenuous statement, contradicted almost immediately by the translator's thanks to the prime minister's office and his description of the poems as revealing "the inner world of the Prime Minister of India", it hardly matters. Neither the prime minister of India nor A B Vajpayee, the individual, manages to move beyond platitude and bathos in the verse on display:
The evening of life begins to fall.
My years are spent
My journeys are done
The evening of life begins to fall.
Roughly half the poems are in this vein of soporific melancholy. The others, in spite of the translator's claim that the "declamatory and hortatory poems have been excluded", are brayed with the kind of authority that comes only after you have addressed the masses from the ramparts of Red Fort: "We shall not allow war!/We are devoted to peace, we shall not allow war!"
Before events of the past few years confirmed that the 77-year-old leader of India had given way completely to the the crude sectarian agenda of the BJP, Vajpayee was often described as "the right man in the wrong party". This was far too generous an assessment, reflecting more than anything the Indian elite's clever strategy of finding a human face for its class interests within a party that (even its defenders sometimes concede) is violent, profiteering and short-sighted. The presence, in this collection, of poems with social themes such as nuclear holocaust, peace with Pakistan and the futility of religious violence explains how Vajpayee managed to retain the appearance of a humanist for so long, unlike his colleague Lal Krishna Advani, who abandoned all pretensions to humanity during his chariot tour of 1990, when he exhorted the Hindus of Ayodhya to rebuild the temple of Ram.
But even Vajpayee's humanism is flawed; the introduction he provides to the poetry is also a primer to his politics, with its outlines of a fastidious Brahminism, cultural insularity and bourgeois possessiveness. "Poetry came to me as an inheritance . . . Some friends say that had I not been a politician, I would have been a leading Hindi poet." I cannot think of too many poets with quite this sense of artistic entitlement, so that when Vajpayee describes his father's most popular poem, "Prayer to the Almighty", being sung at school assemblies in Gwalior, the closest aesthetic parallel I can find, alas, is the image of John Ashcroft leading the American devout in a rendition of "Let the Eagle Soar".
Inheritance is a good word, however, because it explains what is wrong with the politics as well as the poetry. The parties of which Vajpayee was a founder member, first the Jan Sangh and then its successor, the BJP, always believed that the India they had been handed down was a flawed possession. It was an inheritance doubly despoiled, most recently by colonialism, but more permanently by Muslim invasion, ridden with more holes than even the moth-eaten Pakistan given to Muhammad Ali Jinnah. It is not surprising, therefore, that Vajpayee's verse alternates between the quavering self-pity of the personal poems and the vigorous double time of the declamatory verses, in a manner closely resembling the gait that India has largely assumed under the tutelage of the BJP. In this exemplary instance of reactionary politics, the assertiveness of the Hindu right is informed by a sense of victimhood, while grandiose claims of civilisational glory are instantly followed by paranoid fears of being reduced to a minority.
The situation cannot last, but things are likely to get worse before they get better. Like some other outfits that also call themselves families, the BJP and its sister Hindu organisations in the Sangh Parivar have made it clear that Vajpayee has been too slow and cautious, and that even his semblance of humanism is an obstacle on the road to absolute power.
The unflattering portrait of Vajpayee published in a recent issue of Time, with its suggestion that the prime minister is often asleep at the wheel, merely precipitated an organisational change long in the making. With the ascension of Advani to the position of deputy prime minister, the family has announced a new stage in its long war on India's minorities, its poor and on the country itself. The patriarch, in his autumn, may dabble in verse, but the men taking charge are probably scribbling simpler instructions: exterminate the brutes.
Siddhartha Deb's novel, The Point of Return, is just out from Picador