As tributes for Atal Bihari Vajpayee poured in from across the globe, a number of city residents fondly recalled their association with the former Prime Minister, who happened to be a frequent visitor to the city. “Itne achche kaam mein itni der kyun lag gayi (Why did it take so much time for this good work?),” former Finance Secretary Vijay Kelkar remembered Vajpayee asking him in 1999, when he suggested the minting of a special commemorative coin in memory of Sant Dnyaneshwar. Needless to say, he approved the suggestion.
“Atal Bihari Vajpayee was one of the greatest Prime Ministers of India. He was indeed a great leader. I had the honour to work with the NDA government from 1997 to 2004… His economic and social policies always adopted a liberal approach. He introduced many major reforms, which laid the foundation for India’s golden period of growth,” Kelkar said.
“Under Vajpayee’s leadership, India successfully overcame three major external challenges, the 1998 Asian financial crisis, (international) sanctions against India (after nuclear tests) and Kargil war,” he said.
Scientist Raghunath Anant Mashelkar, who was director general of CSIR from 1995 to 2006, worked closely with Vajpayee. As president of the CSIR society when he was the Prime Minister, Vajpayee was Mashelkar’s direct boss. Mashelkar recalled how after the nuclear tests, Vajpayee had warned him of the impending international sanctions and how those could hurt the Indian scientific community. “I vividly remember having told Atalji that as long as we did not keep the sanctions in our mind, there was no need for Indian science to worry. He seemed very pleased with my response and remarked that scientists must work with this same spirit,” Mashelkar said. He also recalled how May 11, the day when India carried out nuclear tests in 1998, came to be marked as Technology Day.
“Just a few days after the test (on May 25, 1998), we were at an event where the Prime Minister was to give away the (Shanti Swarup) Bhatnagar prizes. On the dais, I had told Vajpayee how May 11 was significant for Indian science in more ways than one. It was on that day that India’s first indigenous aircraft Hansa-III had made its maiden flight. The short-range, surface-to-air Trishul missile was also tested on this day. So I had suggested that we should commemorate this day somehow. I did not realise he would decide immediately. To my delight, at the end of his speech, he announced that May 11, henceforth, would be observed as the National Technology Day,” Mashelkar said. He also remembered the Indian Science Congress in Pune in 2000, where Vajpayee had repeated his expanded slogan, “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan, Jai Vigyan” amidst thunderous applause of thousands of scientists.
Srinivas Joshi, a classical singer and son of Bhimsen Joshi, said Vajpayee shared a special relationship with his father. “Everyone knows Atalji as a Prime Minister, a politician and poet but my recollection of him is quite different. My father, Pt Bhimsen Joshi, and Atalji had extremely good relations and hence I was able to witness their meetings, chats from close quarters. In my mind, his image is that of a silent, simple man who loved artists and art.
Several times in his speeches, he had said that Bhimsenji is my favourite singer and they had met many times. I think my father and he got along well since Atalji was a poet. I recall several of these meetings. One of them was at a programme of Geet Ramayan by music composer Sudhir Phadke and another was during an event organised during the release of the movie Veer Sawarkar. Whenever Atalji used to come to Pune, he would meet my father,” he said.
“On the 75th birthday celebrations of my father, Atalji had attended the felicitation programme held at Ramanbaug School and spoke very fondly of Bhimsenji. When he was the Prime Minister and my father invited him for the inauguration of Sawai Gandharva Smarak, Atalji told him that he was not sure if he would still be the prime minister as the government was going through some crisis. My father told him that no matter what, Atalji should inaugurate the memorial and he (Vajpayee) only laughed in reply. Later he came for the event and stayed for a long time even after the function,” he said.
Ravindra Ghatpande, a proprietor of Snehal Prakashan, recalled a book release function of author Mrunalini Joshi, which Vajpayee had attended in 1986. Recalling the humility of the late PM, he said a copy of the book written on M S Golwalkar was sent to Vajpayee before publication. “When I went to the airport, he recalled that we had sent him a copy and insisted to return the book which we had presented him during the inauguration, saying that he already had one copy which we had sent as a sample. He took it back only after I convinced him to gift it to someone else,” Ghatpande said.
Dr K H Sancheti, the founder of the Sancheti Hospital for Orthopaedics, was part of the medical team that operated both knees of Vajpayee. “He was such an obedient patient. He did not question us about the medication and there was just kindness on his face when he spoke to any of us. He never behaved like a VVIP and it was so easy to speak with him,” Sancheti recalled.
Dr Abhijit Vaidya, cardiologist and son of former Home Minister Bhai Vaidya, said he was studying in the first-year MBBS when he accompanied his father and Vajpayee in a chartered plane from Mumbai to Pune for a public meeting. “I particularly remember my father telling me that you must listen to Atalji’s powerful oratory.” At Deenanath Mangeshkar hospital, which was inaugurated by Vajpayee in November 2001, doctors still remember his famous speech.
According to Dr Prasad Rajhans, Vajpayee had, while congratulating the hospital, said that he would not wish that it should get many sick patients but instead hope that all patients coming to the hospital should recover well and go back home.
Consumer activist Suryakant Pathak said Vajpayee had inaugurated the office of Grahak Panchayat in the city in 1979 while giving suggestion to make a movement of consumer protection rights. “He was a very simple person and was at ease with local activists even after becoming the prime minister of the country,” he said.
State Food and Civil Services Minister Girish Bapat said the death of Vajpayee marked the end of an era in Indian politics. “The well-cultured politician, a sensitive poet and the pillar of the BJP has left the world. The death of Atal Bihari Vajpayee is a very big loss to the party. He should be described as the most cultured political leader of the country who has been the ideal of many,” Bapat said.
State Social Justice Minister Dilip Kamble said the country had lost one of its most beloved sons. “I first came in touch with Vajapyeeji in 1980 and thereafter had many instances of spending time with the great leader. I experienced the greatness of the former prime minister during meetings with him as state minister to discuss various issues,” he said.
Mayor Mukta Tilak cancelled all celebrations planned on her birthday on Friday. In a statement, Tilak appealed to citizens to not put posters or hoardings wishing her birthday. “The death of Atal Bihari Vajpayee is a loss to the country and his contribution to the nation as well as the political fraternity is unmatchable,” she said.
City BJP chief Yogesh Gogawale said the former prime minister was the hero of the masses and inspiration to youths and that his passing away was tough to all his followers.