I had just walked into The Indian Express office when the receptionist, seeing me, said with relief, “Oh good, you are just in time to take the call. It is from the PMO.”
I thought it would be about some event the PMO was organising. Instead, I heard, “Main Atal Bihari Vajpayee bol raha hoon.” He had called about a story I had written in that morning’s paper. “Yeh aapne kya likh diya hai?” His government had managed, with difficulty, to get agitating Opposition parties to agree to let Parliament function, the Prime Minister said. But my story had ensured the fat would be back in the fire. And he was none too pleased.
He asked me who had given me the information. I said, “I am sorry sir, I cannot tell you that, for they talked to me in confidence.” He took the names of three people who he thought might have done it. “Please forgive me sir, I cannot say anything,” I said. I was feeling quite uncomfortable, not knowing how to handle the conversation better. I was after all, speaking to the Prime Minister of India. He sounded peeved all through.
But Vajpayee never held that against me in the subsequent meetings I had with him. If he did, he did not show it. That is what made him what he was — the quintessential moderate, the democrat who understood the plurality and diversity of India, and the importance of adopting a middle-of-the-road approach. He had regard for leaders of all parties, and respect for the roles that the different wings of the state were called to play.
That may explain why the country waited with bated breath for the latest bulletin on his health all day, and BJP and non-BJP leaders rushed to Delhi when they heard he was critical. This, 14 years after he went out of power, and 10 years after he had withdrawn himself from public life and the public gaze.
The death of India’s 10th Prime Minister has brought the curtain down on the “Vajpayee era”.
It used to be said, sometimes to his face, that he was the right man in the wrong party. He would laugh, his shoulders shaking silently. At one stage in the second half of the eighties, many urged him to float a new party, but he decided against it. Many of his actions flowed from his spirit of moderation, and of give-and-take to find solutions. It is this which endeared him to leaders across the board.
Many said Jawaharlal Nehru was one of his icons, although he criticised India’s first Prime Minister for the death in custody of his mentor Syama Prasad Mookerji, and for lack of preparedness in 1962 when the Chinese attacked.
Nehru had noticed his oratorical skills in Parliament soon after he was elected in 1957. “This young man one day will become the country’s Prime Minister,” Nehru introduced Vajpayee to a visiting dignitary. When Nehru died in 1964, Vajpayee was at this poetic best: “The sun has set, but by the shadow of stars, we must find our way.”
Vajpayee enjoyed a rare rapport with Sonia Gandhi. He would authorise his Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra — to whom he left the nuts and bolts of administration, often saying, “Aap Brajesh se baat kar leejiye” — and she would frequently depute Natwar Singh to implement a decision they had agreed upon.
His relationship with P V Narasimha Rao was unusual. “PV” used Vajpayee, then Leader of Opposition, as a member of the Indian delegation to Geneva, to ward off pressure on Kashmir mounted by Pakistan. Rao conveyed to Vajpayee India’s total preparedness in 1995 (it had come to T-3 level when the Americans got wind of it) to undertake nuclear tests. Vajpayee considered it during his 13-day government in 1996, but shied away because his ministry had not won the trust vote. He lost no time in exploding the thermonuclear device at Pokharan after coming to power in 1998.
Vajpayee invited Rao to release his book, Meri Ikyavan Kavitayen. It was a memorable function held at the FICCI auditorium in Delhi — “PV” called Vajpayee a political “guru”, and Vajpayee was quick with his riposte: “Agar main guru hoon to aap gurughantal hain!”
His liberal approach enabled him to run a complex, 24-party coalition government. The RSS mounted pressure during the formation of the government — he had decided on Jaswant Singh as his Finance Minister, but in the early hours of the day he was sworn in, the name changed to Yashwant Sinha.
For all the problems Vajpayee faced — and national coalitions had by then become a reality — his was the first non-Congress government to complete its term (1999-2004). Jayalalithaa brought it down in 1999, but he bounced back, aided by an undercurrent of sympathy, having lost by only one vote.
When in 1995, in Mumbai, L K Advani declared him the BJP’s prime ministerial choice whenever it came to power — he did so without consulting BJP or RSS leaders — it was because, unlike him, Vajpayee had a “moderate” image, and was acceptable to a large cross-section of parties. In fact, as far back as 1989, Govindacharya, then a powerful BJP general secretary, had told this writer, “Advaniji will never consider becoming Prime Minister as long as Atalji is there.”
The Atal-Advani relationship has been a fascinating study (some compared it to the Nehru-Patel relationship), and it took the party from untouchability to political acceptance and power at the Centre for three stints. Rivals yet comrades — at one time when Vajpayee was PM and Advani Deputy PM, and the “Vikas Purush” versus “Lauh Purush” controversy was raging — whenever they sat across each other, they managed to defuse tensions.
An issue close to Vajpayee’s heart was Kashmir. His offer to the people of J&K to find a solution through “Kashmiriyat, Jamhooriyat and Insaniyat”resonated with many. It was not surprising that a few months before he died, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed said “the success of this experiment (a coalition of Mufti’s PDP and the BJP) will depend on the extent to which Narendra Modi can be an Atal Bihari Vajpayee”.
Vajpayee knew it was not possible to find a solution to Kashmir without stabilising India’s relations with Pakistan. He decided to undertake the Lahore Yatra in February 1999, which made many, including those bruised by Partition, weep in front of their TV sets as they watched the incredible journey that had the potential to heal decades-old wounds. But what followed was the Kargil war. And yet, Vajpayee did not give up. He held the Agra Summit with General Pervez Musharraf. The effort failed, and the rest is history.
One cannot help wonder whether, as Vajpayee became less active, he ever felt that he should have insisted on adherence to “Raj Dharma” in Goa when, after the 2002 Gujarat riots, he had wanted the resignation of Narendra Modi. How will history judge Vajpayee for not being able to create enough tall, next-generation leaders in his party, cast in his mould, to carry forward his legacy?
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a “Ratna” of Bharat, a shrewd Prime Minister with a poet’s heart and a rare felicity with words, and with pauses that were as powerful as your words — India will miss you.