As the flames from the pyre rose towards the fading light of the evening sky at Smriti Sthal on August 17, I offered my respectful homage to Atal Bihari Vajpayee (ABV), a humanist to the core, under whom I had the unique privilege of working, in different capacities, from 1996-2007. I was Director, Special Protection Group (SPG), in charge of the security of the Prime Minister of India, when the decks were cleared for a minority government led by ABV to assume office on May 16, 1996, after a fractured electoral verdict.
The SPG sprang into action, taking command of 6, Raisina Road where the 13th Prime Minister designate of the country had lived for decades. A security architecture had to be put in place in the new location, taking into account the sensitivities of the prevalent eco system. The family, comprising daughter Namita, and son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya, were on board from the start, extending support for a security system at a place known for its unfettered access to people from different walks of life and across a diverse political spectrum.
I had called on ABV and the family to explain the need of the hour. I was awe-struck, meeting the incumbent PM and colossus, who had straddled the Indian political domain for decades. The leader with a magnetic personality wore a milky white and crisply ironed khadi dhoti and kurta. What moved me was his amazing grace in putting me at ease.
Following major modifications in the existing arrangements in the bungalow on Raisina Road, visible annoyance was seen against the “imposition” of security restrictions. The members of the Press Club across the road in particular had complained to ABV about the alleged harrassment and security-checking of visitors.
As I entered, he greeted me with a warm namaskar. In a soft tone, he spoke about the sensitivities involved in relationships between the people and their representatives. Implicit in the pithy words was the import of what he expected us to do. That was his style and signature. He gave me a smile when I assured him that it would be a serious endeavour on the part of the SPG to “strike a balance” between relationships and requirements of security/protection.
ABV had his unique way of testing waters. One morning, he desired to have his morning breakfast in his favourite restaurant in the locality nearby. He had cautioned against causing any inconvenience to daily customers and people in the locality and traffic.
The SPG accepted the challenge, making a departure from the regular security drill by taking full advantage of the “surprise” element. The Prime Minister of India, perhaps for the first time in the history of the SPG, and to the disbelief of every one, had his breakfast in the mohalla restaurant. Some of the customers came to the table and congratulated the new PM on his assumption of the august office.
The restaurant bearers who used to do errands for ABV until a few days ago, wore a nervous and surprised look on their face while serving the nation’s most famous customer. ABV looked amused and happy along with some of the family members.
After assumption of office, the PM was to address a public rally at the Ramlila maidan in the evening. The family was kept informed that a bullet-proof rostrum would be used at the rally, in view of the sensitive security situation.
On arrival, someone from the party pointed it out to ABV and he was upset. I was asked if it could be dismantled. I expressed my reservations but what compounded the situation was an unfortunate incident of one of the PSOs fainting on the dais, out of exhaustion. He was promptly whisked away and someone else took his place.
But after the rally, some of those who were witness to the accident, were found finding fault with the SPG, pinpointing the danger in the fact that the PSO had carried a weapon. A bit of sensationalism in order to fish in troubled waters. What quietened them down was when it was pointed out to them that there is a drill that the “safety catch” of the small weapon had to be locked when the weapon is not in use.
The rare incident was shared with those who mattered. The grace and understanding shown by them saw to it that no hue and cry was raised. It went a long way in sowing the seeds of trust which later blossomed into a banyan tree under the benign grace of the departed leader.
As expected, the 13-day government came to an end with Atal Bihari Vajpayee tendering his resignation on May 28. Raisina Road became the location of a former Prime Minister and Race Course Road got a new occupant.
It was in Raisina that one day I became a bit audacious, exceeding my charter of responsibility to ask ABV what had prompted him to go for the option of forming a government which was doomed to fail. I was prepared for a rebuff but after a pause, ABV observed “it was to ignite a beacon of hope for the future.”
I returned from the SPG to the Intelligence Bureau in April 1997. After a brief interlude of about a year, ABV returned to power, heading the NDA in March, 1998 to form a government on a much firmer wicket. I got elevated to the post of Director, IB (DIB) in April 1998. I retired in May 2001 and became Governor, Nagaland in January 2002.
My last visit to Vajpayeeji was on March 27, 2015. It was on the occasion of the conferment of the Bharat Ratna at his residence by President Pranab Mukherjee. It was a unique honour for a retired Director, SPG, to be invited to such a momentous occasion. I was overwhelmed by the kind gesture.
In the demise of Atal Bihari Vajpayee the nation has lost a humanist and a voice of empathy and wisdom. The nation and people will miss the statesman for a long time to come.