Updated: January 4, 2022 12:53:56 pm
When Atal Bihari Vajpayee was born on December 25, 1924, in Gwalior, the Viceroy House was being built at Raisina Hill, nearly 350 km away. As a young leader keen to see the country free from the shackles of foreign rule, his brush with the imperial seat of power was bound to be antagonistic. Once India attained freedom and the Rashtrapati Bhavan became the highest constitutional seat of the republic, Vajpayee’s unconditional deference to constitutionalism and the resultant respect for the successive occupants of the Rashtrapati Bhavan is an unmatched saga of exemplary public conduct.
As a parliamentarian, his association with the Rashtrapati Bhavan began in the second term of Rajendra Prasad. Over the following decades, Atalji made several visits, each of which was imbued with a different emotion reflecting the twists and turns of his political career.
May 5, 1996, was a momentous day for Vajpayee as he stepped into President Shankar Dayal Sharma’s study. Atalji was nervous and anxious. Ullekh NP writes in his biography, The Untold Vajpayee: Politician and Paradox (Penguin, 2016), “The clean-shaven man with oiled grey hair muttered to his companion in a soft, conspiratorial tone that was quite uncharacteristic of his oratorical self: ‘Bhai, maamla gadbad hai’ (something is afoot).”
The situation that was worrying him was indeed irksome. The general elections had seen the BJP become the single-largest party for the first time but it held only 161 seats, well short of the majority of 272. Before the elections, Vajpayee had announced that he had no desire to form the government unless his party had the majority. Now he was apprehensive that the President would ask him to do precisely what he was loath to do. The President had invited him to the Rashtrapati Bhavan to ask him to take oath as the prime minister.
The oath-taking ceremony on May 16, held in a packed Durbar Hall, was historic for the BJP that had barely a decade ago only two members in the Lok Sabha (prompting a taunt from across the aisle: “Hum do, hamare do”). As events played out, though, Vajpayee’s first government lasted for only 13 days. On May 27, he delivered a momentous speech in the Parliament. “We are being held in the dock without reason… yes, we failed to use the opportunity the President gave us, but that is a different matter… we will yield before the stronger alliance… but rest assured that we won’t rest until we finish the work we have begun in the nation’s interest,” he said, before ending with: “Adhyaksh Mahoday, mein apna tyagapatra Rashtrapati Mahoday ko dene jaa raha hun (Respected Speaker, I am now leaving to tender my resignation to the President).”
Vajpayee’s visit to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, his third that month, was symbolising victory, not defeat. He had been given a responsibility, a task he knew he was bound to fail at. Nevertheless, he stoically performed his duty. And when it was apparent that no other party was willing to put national interest above their narrow political gains, he stepped down instead of facing a vote of confidence that would have embarrassed the Parliament and the President.
The 1998 elections saw the BJP under Vajpayee secure 182 seats. He put together the National Democratic Alliance and went to meet President KR Narayanan to stake claim to form the government. Unusually, the President insisted on seeing the letters of support from all the allies. Atalji had one letter short – that of AIADMK chief J Jayalalithaa. The next few days were spent in securing that letter. On March 15, Atalji met the President again. Coming out, he quipped with his characteristic smile: “Chitthi aayee hai”, quoting the lines of a Bollywood song evoking laughter from media persons.
The swearing-in ceremony took place on March 19, in the forecourt – only the second time that was the venue instead of the Durbar Hall. (Chandra Shekhar had taken oath as prime minister in the forecourt in November 1990.) The government would survive only 13 months, but during this period, Vajpayee made one more historic visit to the Rashtrapati Bhavan. On May 13, 1998, he announced the successful test detonation of five nuclear bombs, ushering the nation into the elite club possessing a nuclear deterrence. Incidentally, the chief project coordinator for the tests was a future resident of the Rashtrapati Bhavan: APJ Abdul Kalam.
By April 1999, the political situation had started to deteriorate into uncertainty. With the AIADMK withdrawing its support to the NDA, the question was whether Vajpayee should be asked to prove his majority in the Parliament. On April 12, he called on the President. Along with him were Home Minister LK Advani and Parliamentary Affairs Minister PR Kumaramangalam. In their meeting, Vajpayee insisted that his government held the majority and the President could not direct the government to seek a vote of confidence as the Parliament was still in session. If the opposition desired, Vajpayee opined, they could move a vote of no confidence.
But two days later, President Narayanan wrote to Atalji asking him to seek a vote of confidence. Narayanan justified his action by claiming that he was following precedence. In October 1990, President R Venkataraman had advised Prime Minister VP Singh to seek a vote of confidence after the BJP withdrew support to his National Front government. On April 17, 1999, the BJP would lose the vote of confidence by a single vote. President Narayanan dissolved the Parliament and called fresh elections.
As caretaker PM, he faced a fresh test. With the enemy incursion and war in Kargil, his caretaker government was kept busy mobilising the resources and the courage of the nation to fight back. Political games, however, continued. Fearing that the war action would increase his popularity, the opposition began to petition the President to call for a special session of the Rajya Sabha to question the government (as the Lok Sabha was already dissolved). The President forwarded the petitions to the Prime Minister, but ultimately nothing would come out of it.
The 1999 elections gave Vajpayee the majority he needed to become the first non-Congress PM to serve the full term. On October 13, Atalji was sworn in by President Narayanan in the forecourt in a two-hour-long ceremony.
The five years saw Prime Minister Vajpayee make numerous trips to the Rashtrapati Bhavan; to participate in swearing-in ceremonies of constitutional authorities, attend at-home celebrations and state banquets. The visits, though largely ceremonial and customary, were not all uneventful. Vajpayee and his government had toiled hard to woo the US to remove the sanctions placed post-Pokhran and bring investment into the country. One result of these efforts was the visit of President Bill Clinton in 2000, the first since President Carter visited India in 1978.
In the official banquet hosted for President Clinton at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, President Narayanan went off the script in his toast to criticise their guest, much to the surprise and consternation of Vajpayee. Narayanan chided Clinton for proclaiming South Asia as the “most dangerous place in the world”. The New York Times reported, “By the end of the day, the tensions inherent in forging an Indian-American friendship surfaced when India’s President KR Narayanan rebuked Clinton in a toast.”
Vajpayee also oversaw a transition at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. On June 10, 2002, he announced the NDA’s intention to support Kalam in the Presidential elections. Atalji then wanted to inform Kalam, but could not find out where he was and had to press the Intelligence Bureau. The future President was traced to a small town in south India where he was addressing class 12 students.
On May 13, 2004, Vajpayee resigned following the NDA’s poll defeat. After an hour-long cabinet meeting, he drove to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, accompanied by Deputy Prime Minister Advani, and submitted his resignation to the President. In December 2005, he retired from active politics and his visits to the Rashtrapati Bhavan ended abruptly.
But in 2015, the Rashtrapati Bhavan went to Vajpayee. The Bharat Ratna, the nation’s highest civilian honour, was to be conferred on him. The ceremony is usually held in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, but he was ill. So, in a departure from tradition, President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi went to his residence and conferred the award on Atalji. This was also the last time he was photographed publicly. The photo later released by the Rashtrapati Bhavan shows his health condition. He received the award seated, with his eyes covered by tinted glasses.
Vajpayee passed away on August 16, 2018. President Ram Nath Kovind, who went to his home and also attended the state funeral, wrote in a moving letter to his adopted daughter Namita: “Atalji’s death is also a personal loss for me. It was his stature and dignity that attracted me to public life.”
The relationship between the Rashtrapati Bhavan and Atalji was, in the end, not one-sided. The Rashtrapati Bhavan had an impact on the course of his political life. But through the sheer weight of his personality and conduct, he also shaped the lives of people across our vast nation – even inspired one of them to become the President.
(Praveen Siddharth is Private Secretary to the President.)
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