July 25, 2021
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Vajpayee: Love, Life and Poetry

The better half Atal Bihari Vajpayee never had and yet was always at his side...

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Vajpayee: Love, Life and Poetry
Vajpayee playing with his niece and pets
Prashant Panjiar/Outlook Archive
Vajpayee: Love, Life and Poetry
Atal Bihari Vajpayee: A Man for All Seasons
By Kingshuk Nag
Rupa Publications India | Pages: 202 | Rs. 395

Hum ne dekhi hai in aankhon ki mahekti khushboo,
Haath se chuke ise rishton ka ilzaam na do.
Sirf ehsaas hai, yeh rooh se mehsus karo,
Pyar ko pyar hi rehne do, koi naam na do.

Gulzar's immortal lines in the film Khamoshi aptly describe a very important aspect of Atal Bihari Vajpayee's life.Though not unknown to his associates, this vital part of Atal's life journey has been lived out of public discussions.

When Rajkumari Kaul died in May 2014, many newspapers reported the news. The conservative ones described her as Atal's household member but, writing in The Telegraph, journalist K.P. Nayar said, 'Mrs Kaul will be remembered for many years by those who knew her as the self-effacing, conspicuously selfless better half that Vajpayee never had and yet was always at his side till she fell ill and succumbed to heart attack.'

Journalist Girish Nikam, writing for Rediff.com, recounted his experience with Vajpayee and Mrs Kaul. Nikam, who was in touch with Atal for his reporting assignments (he was talking of the days when Atal was yet to become prime minister), recounted how Mrs Kaul picked up the phone every time he called up Atal's residence.

Mrs Kaul on picking up the phone would automatically say, 'Mrs Kaul here.'

Once Nikam, who had got used to Mrs Kaul's voice, answered, 'Yes I know,' the moment Mrs Kaul identified herself.

Mrs Kaul shot back very gently, 'You don't know who I am?'

Nikam was forced to reply, 'No Ma'am.'

Mrs Kaul then replied, 'I am Mrs Kaul, Rajkumari Kaul. Vajpayeeji and I have been friends for a long time, over forty years. You don't know?'

Nikam wrote that he mumbled a reply, 'Oh I am sorry I did not know.'

Mrs Kaul then laughed and went on to say how Vajpayee had lived with her and her husband Professor Kaul all these years.

The only time the self-effacing Mrs Kaul gave an interview to the press was to a woman's magazine in the mid-1980s. When the interviewer asked her about herself and Atal, Mrs Kaul replied that both Atalji and she never felt the need to offer apologetic explanations to Mr Kaul once the dirty rumours began (of them living together in the same household). She added that her relationship with her husband was far too strong for that.

Sunita Budhiraja—a public relations professional, poet and writer—who knew both Atal and Mrs Kaul very well, recollects having called up the latter when she read the interview. But the phone was answered by Atal and Sunita said that she wanted to compliment both him and Mrs Kaul for the bold interview.

Atal said, 'Aap khud hi yeh baat unhe bataayein,' and handed the phone to Mrs Kaul who was around.

Sunita, who was once close to Mrs Kaul but later drifted away, recollects that one day in a pensive mood she had confided in Sunita about her relationship with Atal. Apparently the two were in college in Gwalior at the same time. This was in the mid-1940s and those were conservative days when friendships between boys and girls were frowned upon. So, most of the time, emotions were never expressed by those in love. Apparently, young Atal left a letter for Rajkumari in a book in the library. But he did not get a reply to his letter. Rajkumari did in fact reply. The reply was also left in a book but it did not reach Atal. In course of time, Rajkumari (whose father was a government official) was married to a young college teacher, Brij Narain Kaul.

'Actually she wanted to marry Atal but there was tremendous opposition at her home. The Kauls considered themselves of a superior breed, although Atal was also a Brahmin,' says Sanjeev Kaul, a businessman from Delhi whose family is related to Mrs Kaul's.

He said that Mrs Kaul grew up partly in the Chitli Qabar area of the walled city of Delhi with her cousins before moving to Gwalior. She was known there by her nickname of 'Bibi'. Mrs Kaul's father, Govind Narain Haksar, was employed with the Scindias' education department. Kamini Kaul, a niece of Mrs Kaul's, but only slightly younger than her, remembers Bibi Behn's engagement.

'It was in 1947 around the time of partition and there were riots in old Delhi where we stayed. But Bibi Behn's mother brought her hurriedly to Delhi and got her engaged to this young college lecturer. The marriage was held later in Gwalior,' Kamini Kaul remembers.

She says that Brij Mohan Kaul was a very decent man: 'Bahut sidhey the.'

Atal moved on in life but did not marry, and he became a full- time politician. The two met once again when Atal had become an MP and Rajkumari had moved to Delhi, her husband teaching philosophy in Delhi University's Ramjas College.

S.K. Das, an IAS officer who retired as secretary to the Government of India, has vivid memories of Atal in Mrs Kaul's house in Ramjas College.

He said,'Professor Kaul was the warden of Ramjas College hostel where I was a student between 1965 and 1967 and a hosteller.'

He adds, 'Professor Kaul was strict and would land up in the hostel in the evenings. We were young students and we wanted to enjoy our newly found independence, sometimes imbibing a drink or two, and found the presence of the professor rather disconcerting.'

Das relates that after confabulations with some like-minded hostellers they decided to 'complain' to Mrs Kaul, who looked very friendly. When she heard of the 'complaints', Mrs Kaul was very understanding and smiled, saying, 'Why don't you come to my house when my husband goes to the hostel?'

The young students took the suggestion seriously and began landing up in her house every other evening. There they encountered Atal Bihari Vajpayee who was a frequent visitor.

Atal welcomed these young lads and engaged them in conversation even as Mrs Kaul plied them with sweets and sometimes even made thandai. Other than Das, the other lads included Ashok Saikia, who also became an IAS officer and was joint secretary in the Prime Minister's Office when Atal was prime minister; B.P. Mishra, who also became an IAS officer and was chairman of New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC); and M.L. Tripathi, who joined the Indian Foreign Service and became India's high commissioner to Mauritius and Bangladesh.

'In those days we had no clue that Atal and Rajkumari had any friendship and many years later when we heard tales we felt very guilty for coming in the way of the two to be a sort of kabaab mein haddi,' says Das.

He is also quick to point out that Atal was never resentful of their presence and would encourage the boys to talk and was solicitous about their future careers options.

'In fact he would try to convince us that academics offered a good career and we should think of pursuing that. He also promised to help us get jobs. The Jana Sangh in those days had a strong hold over Delhi University,' Das reminisces.

These interactions between Das and his friends and Atal took place when the Jana Sangh leader was a Rajya Sabha MP and was already well- known for his oratory skills.

Das says that after college he lost contact with Atal and after becoming an IAS officer, he was allotted the Karnataka cadre. However, in 1978, when he was secretary to the Karnataka Chief Minister Devraj Urs, a visitor suddenly came over without any prior appointment to his office in Bangalore. It was his former warden Brij Narain Kaul.

Prof Kaul said, 'Atalji is remembering you and so is Mrs Kaul. You must visit them in Delhi.'

Atal was, at that time, external affairs minister in Morarji Desai's Janata government.

Posted with a chief minister close to Indira Gandhi, Das went to Delhi with some hesitation. When he went to meet Atal at his Lutyen's residence, Das found Mr and Mrs Kaul and their two daughters staying there. Sometime after Das passed out of college, Atal had moved into the Kaul household even when they were in the Ramjas College warden's quarters.

'Yes, we remember having seen Atalji living there and met him when we used to go there. In fact when she got old even Mrs Kaul's mother was staying with them,' says Kamini Kaul.

In 1968, after the sudden death of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, the then president of the Jana Sangh, Atal's name was considered for the presidency. However, Atal had a strong rival in the party— Balraj Madhok.The latter averred that he was a better candidate to take over the reins of the party, especially because the Jana Sangh's creditable performance of winning thirty-five seats in the Lok Sabha in the 1967 general elections was under his watch. Moreover, he was the seniormost vice president of the party. Madhok began lobbying with the RSS sarsanghchalak M.S. Golwalkar, who wielded tremendous influence in the party. Among other things, Madhok also referred to allegations about Atal's immoral lifestyle and contended that there were complaints that women were visiting him. This was a reference to Mrs Kaul sometimes dropping into Atal's home to meet him. Atal even used to share his home with some other Jana Sangh leaders. The complaint, however, yielded no results because Golwalkar dismissed it.

Atal's unconventional lifestyle and his staying together with the Kaul family were spoken about in Delhi's political circles. However, the press never made a big issue of it and so Atal's personal life never came under the scanner.

The Indian Express wrote the day after Mrs Kaul's death, 'Both he [Atal] and Mrs Kaul never gave their relationship a name and whispered rumours apart, were never pushed to do so.'

In fact, reports on Mrs Kaul's death, in some sections of the press, described her as a member of the Atal household. This description was prompted by a press release from Atal's home that described her as such. Since Atal himself is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, he could not have had any hand in drafting the release.

'It was a rather incorrect description of her that Mrs Kaul would have been the first person to shoot down. Alas, in the hour of grief, somebody stupidly described her merely as a member of the Atal household. In reality she was the anchor of Atal's life, somebody without whose emotional support, perhaps the man could not have reached the level to which he rose,' says a person who knew both of them closely but would rather not be identified.

Of course, political circles recognized the importance of Mrs Kaul. Though she died when campaigning for the 2014 general elections was at its peak, top BJP leaders like L.K. Advani, Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj attended the funeral. Narendra Modi was, however, held up elsewhere in the country. Significantly, Congress supremo Sonia Gandhi paid a quiet visit to the Atal residence to condole the death; even Jyotiraditya Scindia, the scion of the house of Scindias, who ruled Gwalior when Atal and Rajkumari Kaul were attending college there, went for the funeral.

Writing an obituary after Mrs Kaul's death, former Atal aide Sudheendra Kulkarni described her as 'Rajkumari Kaul, mother of Shri Atalji's adopted daughter Namita.'

In fact, soon after Atal started living with the Kauls, he informally adopted the two daughters of the family—Namita and Namrata. Kulkarni, who had been closely interacting with Atal for many years and had been visiting Mrs Kaul's home for years even before Atal became the prime minister, described her as a very kindly woman, whose face was motherly and whose heart was motherly.

Kulkarni added,'Those who interacted with her found her very cultured in a very profound and multi-dimensional sense.'

'Of all the members of every prime ministerial household since Independence, Auntie (as she was known to those who had privileged access to her home) was the most understated but her worth was known to those who knew the intricacies of the organogram of Atal's private life,' wrote K.P. Nayar in The Telegraph. He added that with the death of Mrs Kaul, 'the greatest love story of Indian politics ended forever in as subdued a style as it flourished for several decades under the radar but was known widely'.

In the same vein, senior journalist Pankaj Vohra, who has been a keen observer of Delhi's political scene, told this author,'Mrs Kaul was the fulcrum around which the Atal household functioned.When Atal became the prime minister, the boys from Ramjas College who knew him from their student days gained prominence. In fact Ramjas Club became a term used in Delhi in those days. But remember that these boys were very close to Mrs Kaul and less so to Atal. They came to be known because of Mrs Kaul.'

S.K. Das also seems to ratify this view indirectly when he says, 'For most of us staying outside Delhi but visiting the Atal household when in the capital, the attraction was to meet Mrs Kaul rather than Atal himself.'

When Atal became prime minister, his first private secretary was Shakti Sinha, an IAS officer of the union territory cadre. Sinha's wife, an Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officer, was the niece of Mrs Kaul. Sinha was the secretary to Atal even before Atal was the leader of the opposition. Incidentally, when Sinha left his job for a World Bank assignment, he had his junior V. Anandrajan elevated to the position. Anandrajan, a relatively junior IRS officer at that time, was yanked out of his modest job to be put in the Prime Minister's Office for the simple reason that he knew Shakti Sinha from before. Anandrajan's wife was reporting to Shakti Sinha's wife in the income tax department.

'It is thus that the Mrs Kaul angle worked in the Atal regime. As another example, another IAS officer P.K. Hota became important in the Atal regime. He was not from Ramjas College but was a hosteller in the neighbouring Kirori Mal College of Delhi University and was friends with the boys who formed the core of the Ramjas Club,' says Pankaj Vohra.

Vajpayee with Ranjan Bhattacharya

There was a change in the Atal household in the early 1980s when his adopted daughter (and Mrs Kaul's daughter) Namita got married to Ranjan Bhattacharya. The latter was a Bengali from Patna who was working for the Oberoi hotel in Delhi when his romance with Namita blossomed in the early 1980s. She had passed out of Delhi University's Daulat Ram College and was working in Maurya hotel at that time. They had met earlier in 1977, during their university days. Soon Ranjan had started visiting the Atal household, but Atal maintained a distance from him even if they were at the dining table together. Though Ranjan and Namita lost

their hearts to each other, a crucial test lay before Ranjan. He had to win the approval of Atal Bihari Vajpayee himself before he could marry Ghunnu (Namita's nickname). As Ranjan recollected in an interview later, Atal used to forget his name every time he met him and would address him variously as Banerjee, Mukherjee and even Bengali babu. Needless to add, the smooth-talking Ranjan, the very epitome of a marketing man, passed the Atal test and became part of the household. After marriage, he moved into the house and this may be partly due to the fact that Ranjan, although from a well-to-do family, had lost both his parents in quick succession while he was still in his twenties. Like his wife, Ranjan also began calling Atal 'Baapji' and, in fact, became extremely close to him. Ranjan soon left his job and became an entrepreneur in 1987. He built and ran a hotel in Manali for a few years. Later, he set up a marketing company that provided reservations to the US-based Carlson Hotels Worldwide. After that, Ranjan became the managing director of Country Development and Management Services, a joint venture involving Carlson and Chanakya hotels, providing budget hotels in different locations. Clearly, the career of the adopted son-in-law flourished after he became a part of Baapji's family, but then Baapji himself also used to repose a lot of faith in Ranjan. Evidence of this came when Atal was appointed as prime minister for the first time in 1996. His government lasted merely thirteen days but even in that period, Atal had appointed Ranjan as his officer on special duty (OSD). During Atal's later stints as prime minister, including the five-year one from 1999 to 2004, Ranjan had no official position but was widely known as a mover and shaker in Delhi's political and business circles. There would be regular stories in the media about the alleged deals being struck by Ranjan, though the son-in-law always denied them and asserted that he had nothing to do with the government. He agreed that he lived with the prime minister in his official residence, but, according to him, there was nothing wrong with that. After all he had been staying with Atal since 1983 and, therefore, there was nothing amiss with his moving into the prime minister's residence once Baapji became the PM, Ranjan was quoted as saying in media interviews. Ranjan also pointed out that he conducted his own business from his office in Greater Kailash and not the PM's residence in Race Course Road. Mrs Kaul's elder daughter Namrata became a doctor and ultimately moved to New York where she lives even now. Her father Brij Narain Kaul spent his last days with her. He had gone there for better medical treatment. This was much before Atal became prime minister.

K.P. Nayar of The Telegraph wrote in his obituary of Mrs Kaul, 'The only demand she made on Vajpayee when he went to the UN in New York for annual general assembly was that he should adjust his travel dates so that he could be in the US on the birthday of Namrata.' Nayar also wrote, 'Mrs Kaul never figured in PM's protocol books as hostess at official programmes and did not travel with Vajpayee on his foreign trips but her unseen presence was evident during all such trips.' He added, 'Bhattacharya, who almost always accompanied the PM abroad at times with Namita and were listed in the protocol book as family was often reminded by Mrs Kaul on his cell phone when it was time for Vajpayee to take medicines.'

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