(This article was first published on 23 June 2023. It has been reposted from The Quint's archives to mark the death anniversary of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.)
"In many ways, Nehru was his most beloved nemesis, which is what the chapter on the Nehru years is called. As I mentioned, for a decade, before he became the MP from 1947 to 1957, he absolutely detested Nehru, especially after the partition. He thought Nehru was one of the people behind the partition," said Abhishek Choudhary in an interview with The Quint about his biography of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee titled Vajpayee: The Ascent of the Hindu Right.
Here are some of the highlights of the interview where Chaudhary spoke about the Nehru-Vajpayee rivalry.
Q: Was the initial hatred reciprocated by Nehru?
A: Nehru was happy to reciprocate. He absolutely detested the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh).
He was one of the few to understand the dangers of the RSS: he had the moral and intellectual clarity to understand that RSS could be very dangerous and that it would hollow up the body politic of the nation. Nehru was possibly the only person in his cabinet who understood that in a very precise and shrewd manner.
The hatred was absolutely mutual. Nehru wanted to ban them. And they (the RSS) obviously did not like Nehru at all. So they opposed basically every policy of his. They opposed the Hindu Code Bill, they opposed Nehru's economic policies, they opposed his foreign policy. That was the first decade.
Q: When Vajpayee was in Parliament with Nehru, how was this rivalry showcased?
I write that when Vajpayee spoke for the first time in Parliament on 15 May 1957, he did not waste a second in attacking Nehru. He was sitting in front of him and you know, he immediately declared that his foreign policy was confused.
That day the budget was being discussed and technically speaking, you are only supposed to discuss economics, but Vajpayee was not concerned about that. He began hammering Nehru's policy in Kashmir and Goa. He called him feeble and indecisive and he said that his answer to every question is neti-neti -- “neither this nor that”.
That's how this started. And it was very bitter. And in turn, Nehru was stung and shot back, “he has no manners, he is giving an election speech,” something like that. Nehru was very precise with the time - he spoke only three sentences on him, and then he moved on to somebody else. He even ensured that Vajpayee did not get a permit to go to Kashmir for a while, something that the latter had been doing in order to give rousing speeches to the Hindus in the region.
Q: When did the ice begin to thaw?
A: With time, with a more personal acquaintance, their relationship evolved. They began to warm up to each other, and Nehru also began to think differently of Vajpayee. He began to think of Vajpayee as a likeable, bright young man in an otherwise slightly regressive party.
They continued to bicker over matters big, and small. However, I think as early as May 1958, only after a year or so, their personal relationship became warmer and both sides benefited from each other.
I write in a very detailed way that he was one of the sane people in the opposition who did not demand Nehru's head in 1962, during the war with China. The Jana Sangh was the most vociferous of parties that were opposed to Nehru and yet it was their leader who said that Nehru should be backed in this crucial time.
It was the toughest moment of Nehru’s career, and his opponent, Vajpayee, backed him up -- it must have been very moving for him.
Q: But surely Vajpayee also tried to damage Nehru politically, despite warmer relations?
A: Of course, Vajpayee also caused some harm to Nehru during this time, which the latter gracefully took.
For example, Vajpayee demanded a white paper out of Nehru that did a lot of damage because, you know, every correspondence between India and China would become public and that can be lethal because everything becomes a matter of public scrutiny.
But I have also written how Nehru sent Vajpayee on his first trip to the US, a trip that broadened his worldview. He travelled to many places and attended the UN for the first time as a delegate. He met world leaders. He travelled to different parts of America. He saw that, across cities, people had settled from multiple nationalities. And for somebody like Vajpayee who felt historical victimhood deeply in his books, it must have been a major culture shock for him to see that, but it helped broaden his worldview.