If there is one word which comes to mind about Atal Bihari Vajpayee, it is sabhyata. Of all the political leaders who have reached heights in India, he was the most gracious, the best spoken in prose or poetry. His greatest contribution was to bring the Jana Sangh in from the cold neglect of the Congress establishment and make the BJP a widely accepted party. His success in 1998 made the BJP the alternative to the Congress, building a two-party democracy after 50 years. To come from mere two seats in 1984 to 182 in 1998 must rank as the outstanding achievement of his leadership. Others may cite his decision about nuclear weapons but that was a national effort over decades, not just a BJP decision.
In the way right-wing politicians were portrayed in those days of the Seventies, he was not supposed to be so gentle. As a man from the RSS, he should have been more a figure easy to dismiss, more cardboard cutout than the elegant flesh and blood person that he was. The detractors of the BJP/RSS were so put off by his nice image that they accused him of being the mukhauta, the mask of gentleness hiding the truth about Hindu nationalism.
He had a habit of surprising his critics. No one expected him to be so engaged in improving relations with Pakistan when he was foreign minister. As a Jana Sanghi, he was meant to breathe fire and brimstone in any dealings with Pakistan. He continued these efforts when he became prime minister and changed India’s approach to dealing with the Kashmir question vis-a-vis Pakistan forever. But the BJP/NDA government also became a harbinger of modernity with mobile telephony transforming the country, almost double digit growth rates, divestment, opening up to the USA and the link-up with the diaspora which facilitated foreign investment in India.
The Pravasi Bharatiya Puraskar will be his legacy. I met him at this event in 2004. After he put the medal around my neck, I said, ‘Why did you give it to me? I have criticised the BJP so much’. As with any conversation with him, nothing happened immediately. I had been warned about this by one of my students who knew the then prime minister. My statement went in, was thought about carefully, a reply was composed ,translated from Hindi into English and then he spoke, ‘You criticise everybody.’
The other surprise he had for us was his fondness for Hindi cinema. The story goes that after a setback in the 1957 elections he along with L K Advani went on their motorcycle to see the recently released Raj Kapoor-Mala Sinha starrer Phir Subah Hogi. The title song penned by Sahir Ludhianvi and sung by Mukesh could be the hope and prayer the two of them must have taken solace from. Forty years later, their Subah did arrive.
He was also very appreciative of the news that I had written a biography of Dilip Kumar. He read the book and told me he liked it very much. Indeed my arriving in Delhi for the Puraskar was instrumental in my meeting and marrying the editor of my book. So he was not just a politician but a Cupid too!
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