Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, chosen for Bharat Ratna, turns 90 Thursday. He has been ailing for some years now. But one person who never fails to drop by at his house every week is his friend N M Ghatate, a senior lawyer at the Supreme Court.
They first met in 1957 when Ghatate moved to Delhi from Nagpur to study law. Vajpayee was then a young first-time Lok Sabha MP from Balrampur in Uttar Pradesh. Their friendship has stood the test of time.
A day before Vajpayee was chosen for Bharat Ratna, Ghatate told The Indian Express: “He has more experience than any other living politician. And he knows how to win hearts… as prime minister, when he said Sikkim was part of India or when he took the bus to Lahore. Or, when he was foreign minister and told the Pakistanis that from now on India will defeat Pakistan only on the hockey field. Or, his speech in Srinagar. He has a knack of winning people.”
“He is for all religions. His own driver for a long time was a Muslim, Majid. Once, at a seminar, he was asked that if all religions are same, why do you have a problem with conversions. Atalji replied: Gagar mein Sagar bhar gaya (a lot has been said in a few words).”
Asked if Vajpayee approves of the ongoing debate over conversions and the ghar-wapsi campaign of the RSS? “Why don’t you ask Advani? They are very close… Atalji will certainly have a problem with someone taking advantage of the poverty of adivasis of Orissa and Chhattisgarh to convert them. If he could, he would have done something to stop it. Because he doesn’t think there is any difference between Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians,” Ghatate said.
Ghatate, who has edited several books including a four-volume collection of Vajpayee’s parliamentary speeches and co-authored two books with him, recalled that after the BJP-led NDA’s defeat in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, one of the private secretaries came to Vajpayee to say he was trying to check on the protocol for vacating the Prime Minister’s official residence at 7, Race Course Road. “Vajpayee simply said pata kya karna hai, bistar bandho aur niklo (What is there to find out? Let’s pack our bags and move out),” he said.
Asked what do they discuss when they meet now, Ghatate said, “It’s not possible now due to his illness. But I go there. I talk, and he listens. He has difficulty expressing, he watches television.”