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Atal Bihari Vajpayee argued that literature and politics need not be two separate compartments and felt that if politicians got interested in literature, it would improve their sensitivities.



Vajpayee comes across as someone quite rooted in the Indian milieu—its culture, civilization, traditions and values. He was a liberal in the Indian sense but very different from the classical Western liberal as defined by John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill. Western secularism arose in reaction to the Church’s stranglehold over social life. This was absent in India, where secularism meant equal respect for all faiths. This difference comes out clearly from Vajpayee’s writings, speeches and actions.

His literary taste, too, was interesting. He elaborates it in great detail in a biographical note he wrote for Bindu-Bindu Vichar as well as in Decisive Days. Both of these long essays, though they cover a large span of time, were coincidentally written in the 1996-99 period. Three of his speeches in Parliament—when he moved a no-confidence motion against the Narasimha Rao government on 17 December 1992, after the demolition of the Babri Masjid; his speech on 27 May 1998, when he moved a motion of confidence in his short, ill-fated government; and his reply a day later—present a fairly clear exposition of his views of nationalism, Indian culture and traditions, and secularism and its politics.

The Ramcharitmanas of Goswami Tulsidas had a profound impact on Vajpayee, and he refers to it as his source of inspiration. According to Vajpayee, the comprehensive view of life that it presents has no parallel in the world. The Ramcharitmanas was even translated into Russian when Russia was ruled by the Communist Party. Vajpayee had an eclectic taste in his choice of literary works. However, Indian epics, folklore, patriotism and the tales of heroic figures dominated his reading list. The writers and works he has cited include Jaishankar Prasad (Kamayani), Nirala (Ram Ki Shakti Puja), Mahadevi Verma, Ageya (Shekhar: Ek Jeevani) and Jaganath Prasad ‘Milind’ (Pratap Pratigya). Vajpayee stressed that Premchand’s writing continued to be popular because it was rooted in a realism whose relevance resonated with contemporary readers.

He approved of Jainendra Kumar, who, he said, captured the reader’s imagination even as his works created controversies. Vajpayee was particularly drawn to Vrindavanlal Verma and made references to a number of his stories, like ‘Jhansi Ki Rani’, ‘Mrignayni’, ‘Virata Ki Padmini’, ‘Gad Kundar’, ‘Kachnar’, etc. The historical settings of Verma’s writings and the regional context of Braj drew Vajpayee to him. Surprising for a poet, Vajpayee felt that while poetry captures the angst of an individual, fiction has the potential to capture both the individual and society.

Vajpayee argued that literature and politics need not be two separate compartments and felt that if politicians got interested in literature, it would improve their sensitivities; a poet as a dictator would not shed innocent lives! Authoritarian rulers were cruel because their sensibilities were not developed. Vajpayee was upset that communists had misused the arts to promote their ideologies and hoped that the literary arts would be allowed to flourish without such political interference.

Vajpayee often mentioned in his writings and speeches in Parliament that he should have remained a writer. He wistfully speculated giving up politics and going to a quiet place where thinking and writing was possible, but then realized that this could not happen. In that sense, his life in politics was a dilemma which, as he wrote, he sorted out by expressing his individuality/ personality through the medium of his speeches. The writer in him spoke through his speeches, but it was not as if the politician in him was silent. He explained that the politician presented his thoughts to the writer, and the writer reconsidered them and, after study and contemplation, expressed them. The politician had gained a lot from the writer. The writer did not let the politician cross the boundaries of dignity (maryada). It is because of this vigilance that the writer was balanced in his choice of words. The politician’s speech was bound by the writer’s discipline.

Again, for a full-time politician whose career spanned more than five decades, he came across as someone quite critical of politics and political life. He wrote that politics destroyed mental peace, affection (mamta) and compassion (karuna). Political life created an unusual hollowness in the practitioners as they lived from moment to moment and assumed that their momentary glory was permanent. In politics, idealism had been replaced by opportunism, and differences between ‘left’ and ‘right’ had become personal rather than ideological. He was extremely critical of the politics of dynastic succession, which had become all-consuming. Vajpayee lamented that politics had become all about struggle for power, and that this was more so within parties than among opponents. As a loyal party person, he said that he felt happy that these evils were comparatively less in the party that he belonged to, and quoted K.B. Hedgewar, the founder of RSS, who had warned RSS members against seeking self-publicity.

Though Vajpayee did not always agree with his party, he never made his differences public, and once a decision was taken, he went along with it. Reacting to the statement that he was the ‘right man in the wrong party’, Vajpayee always explained that the fruit was a product of, and drew its qualities from, the tree. Similarly, he always rose to the defence of the RSS when it was attacked. During the 1996 confidence vote, when a lot of negative things were said about the RSS, Vajpayee strongly refuted them, saying: “I regret that during the discussion, the names of such organizations were mentioned here which are independent and are engaged in the task of nation- and character-building I am referring to the RSS. One can have differences with the ideology of the RSS but the allegations levelled against the RSS are not warranted. Even the members of Congress and other parties respect and admire the constructive work being done by the RSS and also lend their cooperation for the same. If they go and work among the poor and work for the spread of education in tribal areas, they should be felicitated for their endeavour.”

Vajpayee’s world view seems to have been profoundly affected by the communal poison that Jinnah and the Muslim League injected into Indian society on the eve of Independence, the resultant tensions and riots, and the Partition. Even in Lahore in February 1999, he publicly spoke against the division of India but added that the reality of Pakistan had to be accepted. During the 1946–47 period, Vajpayee was a student at DAV College in Kanpur, coincidentally along with his father. The city was a stronghold of the Muslim League. The times were traumatic, and as Vajpayee wrote, the more the Muslim League opposed Independence, the angrier people got with them. The result was communal polarization, tensions and riots. He described a function held in his college to discuss the Noakhali riots, when a call was made for volunteers to go to Noakhali to protect the Hindus. Though the call drew lots of support, Vajpayee opposed it at the risk of offending the majority, saying that youth would be needed in Kanpur itself to protect people against riots instigated by pro-Pakistan elements. He then gave a specific example of how many, including him, went near a Muslim-dominated area one night and patrolled the area; after that, he said, there was no more violence in that locality.

For Vajpayee, Independence Day, on 15 August 1947, came drenched in blood—a freedom on whose altar the unity of India had been sacrificed. There was both happiness and depression— happiness at the end of 1000 years of dependence; depression at the partition of the motherland. Vajpayee wrote a dark poem to commemorate Independence Day, titled ‘Swatantrata Divas Ki Pukar’ (The Call of Independence Day). He wrote that Independence was incomplete, that dreams are yet to become reality, and the oath taken on the Ravi was still to be achieved.


Vajpayee’s assessment was that the rising popularity of the RSS, because of the attractiveness of its ideology, irritated the Congress. Gandhi’s assassination created an opportunity for the RSS to be banned. The RSS realized that there was no one to speak for it politically. It therefore teamed up with Dr Syama Prasad Mukherjee, who had broken off from the Hindu Mahasabha due to differences with V.D. Savarkar. Dr Mukherjee had been a minister in Nehru’s first government but later quit because of what he felt was India’s failure to protect the minorities in Pakistan, and especially with the Nehru–Liaquat pact. Dr Mukherjee’s wisdom and legislative skills were well known, and it was in their coming together that the Bharatiya Jana Sangh was established in 1951. The Jana Sangh contested the first Lok Sabha elections in 1952, won four seats and was recognized as a political party with the deepak (lamp) as its symbol. In April 1998, while inaugurating the Konkan Railway in Ratnagiri, Vajpayee would recall that the Jana Sangh had won the Ratnagiri seat in 1952.Vajpayee wrote that he was not afraid of death, and he demonstrated this in real life at least twice. On 22 January 1993, the Lucknow–Delhi Indian Airlines flight, IC 810, was hijacked, with Vajpayee on board. Vajpayee negotiated with the hijacker and got him to surrender. Later, it was established that the hijacker’s threat to blow up the plane was hollow, since he did not have any explosives on him, but this fact was not known when Vajpayee was singly persuading the hijacker to surrender. There was real fear, but that did not deter Vajpayee. On another occasion, he was quite calm, even joked about a state funeral, when the small plane he was on, flying to Dharamshala, lost its navigational aid and got enveloped in fog. The plane somehow reached Kullu, over the Dhauladhar range. It was a providential escape, but at no stage was Vajpayee frightened, while his fellow passenger, Balbir Punj, was in a panic.

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Book Beat

The Break of Dawn



Khan Mahboob Tarzi, translated by Prof. Ali Khan Mahmudabad

Penguin Random House, Rs 399

It’s the searing month of June, the rebellion against the British has just begun and Awadh is up in flames. Hindus and Muslims have joined hands to overthrow the foreign rulers and set India free. Some Indian rulers have started to enter into alliances to fight the foreigners, while others have thrown in their lot with them. A young soldier Riyaz Khan saves a group of Britishers from fellow ‘mutineers’ and escorts them safely to Lucknow. In this group is Alice, who falls in love with him and eventually becomes an informer for the rebels. Khan Mahboob Tarzi wrote the novel on the centenary of the uprising. Its English translation is done by Ali Khan Mahmudabad.

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Death in Colaba Bay: A Colonial Bombay Mystery



Ambika Subramanian

Rupa Publications, Rs 195

Three young girls go missing from a prominent ‘native’ Bombay school. Their families are frantic with worry. Tara Bai, a young widow and heiress, with strong social connections, is an alumnus of the school who agrees to help the grieving parents. Police officer Arun Rao is assigned to the case. Soon, one of the missing girls is found dead on the shores of Colaba. It has uncanny similarities to older cases from Central India involving the royal family of Jaiwar. A chance encounter at the home of one of the victims brings Tara and Arun together who unmask the murderer.

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Scare Me If You Can



Sivan Singh

Tree Shade Books, Rs 350

At a spooky-themed resort in Mahabaleshwar, best-selling author Sivan Singh conducts a workshop on advanced horror writing. On its final day, the nine participants, influenced by their eerie experiences during their stay, along with an enigmatic writer, go all out for the story narration competition ‘Scare Me If You Can’. Jump on board this thrilling roller coaster that promises a screamy ride with mysterious prophecies, sinister sequences, and brutal acts of revenge. The 10 stories are based in different Indian cities, the horror quotient rising with each story. Let your head spin around, as you see everything going wrong and horror becoming a reality.

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Sita: Now You Know Me



Rupa Publications, Rs 395

Sini Panicker

Set in the Vedic times of ancient India, Sita narrates the story of her turbulent life intimately, detailing her deepest despairs, grief and horrors, and her profound love for Ram. This is a spirited and enduring Sita calmly recollecting her transformation at various stages of her life, from an abandoned infant to a cherished princess, a delightful bride to a dissolute hermit in exile, a captive of an enemy to a queen, and culminating as a poor, homeless mother of twin boys in an ashram. Ancient India’s geographical, social, intellectual and cultural portraits accompany Sita gracefully, throughout her journey.

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How to survive in a big fat Indian family business



In her new book, Priyanka Gupta Zielinski shares a five-point toolkit to encourage younger generations wishing to enter their family businesses.

In an interview with The Sunday Guardian, Priyanka Gupta Zielinski, the executive director of MPIL Steel Structures Ltd and author of The Ultimate Family Business Survival Guide, shared her insights about the challenges and privileges of family businesses and how younger generations can be more passionate about them. Excerpts:

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

A: I joined my family business right after completing my education in the US. Quickly, I realised that it was incredibly challenging to work with my own family, especially my father. When the founding generation is still involved in the business, it is still their baby. So while they are very keen to bring in their children, they are not always prepared to do so. At home, we talked about the business all the time, but in the workplace, there are a lot of tensions and conflicts. I had almost reached the breaking point and thought I would have to quit. But I managed to survive, which is why I wrote this book. Younger generations joining family businesses often need a guide or story to rely on.

Q: What are some major lessons you wish to pass on to younger generations and women who may consider joining their family businesses?

A: Family businesses are a huge resource that they should leverage. They may use it to branch out and bring in their own interests and passions, even steer it in a different direction. The resources already exist and they don’t have to start from scratch. There is a legacy of information which should be taken forward instead of losing it. There is also a lot they can learn from their background. Despite our business moving to the southern and western parts of India, my father draws from a lot of Haryanvi wisdom to work with greater agility and troubleshoot problems. Every state and culture in India has so much to offer and one does not need to look only at Western knowledge — it might actually not be suitable for Indian contexts.

For women, family businesses are an immediate platform and resource to tap into. There is a certain flexibility available to them, regarding when and how they enter it. It is an automatic launchpad, which they can then tailor according to their interests and capabilities and personalities. A woman in her 50s, who has seen the family business, will have a much easier time starting her career there, rather than in a different corporate setup. It caters to young women too. Daughters-in-law joining a family business have a good two-way opportunity, which does not disrupt their careers despite the move from their parents’ to their in-laws. There is support they can enjoy.

Q: But such support is a major point of privilege and this throws up questions of how family businesses encourage nepotism.

A: That is a frequent charge against family businesses and the perception is right in a way since there are privileges and things are handed down. But, say in my case, my brother and I grew up hearing about the business, visiting the workplace, understanding it and being groomed unknowingly. And we really wanted to join it too! In this context, there is also the ‘professional nepot’, as defined by Prof John Davis who is a pioneer in family business management. But if one is neither trained nor interested, it can have an adverse effect on the business and surely a non-family member can do the job better. So, it depends from family to family too. However, family members may be more suited to handle certain situations, especially diffuse tension at work. And there is an element of legacy and longevity associated with them, which tells shareholders that they can count on the business.

Q: Given the fluctuations in the economy due to the pandemic, how can your book help family businesses right now?

A: My book presents a practical, usable toolkit for younger generations, especially for times of scarcity and unpredictable situations like now. Family businesses are used to working against all odds. They have inherent skillsets. With this, I have drawn from my experiences and from academic research to give them five tools they can use. For instance, the metaphor of the multipurpose helmet I have used to show how you have to take on different roles in different situations. The book also tells them to be passionate about things outside of work and learn how to incorporate those.

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Jawaharlal Nehru signed the Indus Water Treaty with Gen Ayub Khan of Pakistan in 1960. The then Prime Minister defended the agreement in Parliament and explained to its members why it was a good deal for India.



Jawaharlal Nehru had witnessed it all. The bloody Partition, the canal disputes, the exchange of letters with Lilienthal and Black, the droughts of 1957-58 that saw agriculture losses in India as high as 50 per cent, the long years of water negotiations and the uncomfortable task of having to deal with the seven prime ministers in Pakistan who were sacked from 1947 to 1958.

As fate presented, Nehru, a model of democratic leadership, had to sign the Indus treaty with Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military dictator. There could not be a greater irony. But now, in front of the House, Nehru had to respond to the sentiments of the Opposition as well as some of his party members in what probably was one of his biggest defences, on an issue which had bedevilled him for long. Some of his cabinet members had expressed strong reservations over the financial and strategic implications of the treaty. These included the incorruptible and the very austere finance minister Morarji Desai and Krishna Menon, the defence minister, who was being disparagingly referred to as “India’s Rasputin”.

After having patiently listened for almost two hours to the speeches of the members, Nehru rose to speak on the fateful day on 30 November 1960. As the leader of the House, exhilarated as he always was on such occasions, Nehru began a shade aggressively by expressing his disappointment over the members’ view on the issue.

A host of critical questions had been put forward by the House broadly signifying India’s foolhardy generosity, its unnecessary commitments and inability to settle the Partition debts. Concerns over the Kashmir issue, dispute regarding the Rann of Kutch, status of “Azad Kashmir” where the Mangla dam was being constructed by Pakistan while India’s proposal to build a dam over Chenab was put on hold owing to Pakistan’s insidious pressure, were ventilated by the members with a full sense of their responsibility. Nehru had his plate full, had made notes while carefully listening to the speakers and with “passion but not with malice” set about answering it.

Nehru agreed that the events since the canal dispute of 1948 had not been a pleasant period and one of great frustration, but in the same breath humbly submitted that “it is a good treaty for India and I have no doubt about it in my mind”. While assuring the House that close attention was paid to each detail, he tactfully praised the engineers who fought for India’s interest strenuously. As the prime minister, “I got only the broad facts,” noted Nehru and the engineers were the “experts in this matter”.

He came back to the canal dispute explaining that the time and circumstances then were radically different, “It was not a detailed examination; it was a broad approach. I regret to say that that approach was not followed later by the other side, as it often happens”.

The role of the World Bank was a less controversial issue to respond to, given that the House was not categorically vehement about the World Bank’s role except for some pointed observations by (Odia writer Surendra) Mahanty.

For Nehru, the World Bank’s engagement in the negotiations was an ‘ordinary thing to happen’, least of all alarming; “they were not becoming arbitrators or anything”.

Recalling his conversations with Lilienthal and Black on the active support of the World Bank, Nehru said, “It was only a question of an attempt, if you like, at the most, to help in our coming to an agreement between ourselves. They could not impose anything.”

From his disappointment on what he felt was the ‘narrow mindedness’ of the House on the treaty to his explanation of the circumstances of history and the complexities of the issue, Nehru enlightened the House on the question of consulting Parliament. “Are we to come at every step and ask Parliament?”

Allowing the rhetorical question to seep in, he then elaborated, “Very wisely, the Constitution and convention lay down that in such agreements, Government has to stake its own judgement, its future, on it. There is no other way. One takes a risk; maybe that Government may go wrong. But there is no [o]ther way to deal with it.”

However skilfully Nehru tried to separate himself as the carrier of a ‘broad perspective’ from the nitty-gritty of the negotiations that the engineers engaged in, there was an undeniable Nehruvian internationalist mindset to the entire water issue with Pakistan. Nehru’s interest in international problems was well known. His ideals of oneness, though, clashed with the realities of power politics and interest-oriented relations which he understood but adamantly refused to accept. More than a decade ago, he had hoped for an emergence of Asia as an influence on world peace, which soon fell apart.

Later, his famous enunciation at the Bandung Conference in 1955 that laid the foundation for the Non-Aligned Movement, “let us not align ourselves but have a line of our own”, was immediately contradicted by the creation of two military pacts, the SEATO and the Baghdad Pact (later CENTO). On the Indus treaty, having heard the diatribes, he asked the House, “Is that the way to approach an international question?”

And in a pedantic tone expressed, “Something is done because it is considered, in the balance, that is desirable… In such matters there has to be give and take.”

Nehru did regret the fact that the negotiations were long-drawn and that he had anticipated a year at best to reach a settlement. But there was no remorse in stating, “We purchased a settlement, if you like; we purchased peace and it is good for both countries.”

Nehru excused himself from the House as he had to accompany the crown prince and crown princess of Japan who were on a visit to India, but not before he clarified the issue of consultation with the state governments on the negotiations, “Whenever any proposals were put before me, I asked the Commonwealth Secretary [M.J. Desai] . . . Only when he said ‘Yes’, did I look into it… It may be that what the Commonwealth Secretary reported to me was due to some misunderstanding. He thought that they agreed when they had not.”

It is a pity that Nehru did not stay on for the entire length of the debate as Vajpayee raised an important question on the Indus Commission. He cited Ayub, who soon after the treaty was signed had said, “By accepting the procedure for joint inspection of the river courses, India has, by implication, conceded the principle of joint control extending to the upper region of Chenab and Jhelum, and joint control comprehends joint possession.”

The excerpt is from the book ‘Indus Basin Uninterrupted’ (published by Penguin Random House).

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