There is an interesting piece of anecdote that writer Kingshuk Nag has penned down in his biography of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In 1944, a twenty-year-old Vajpayee had gone to Allahabad to take part in a debating competition. He had reached late, much after his turn to speak was over, and the judges were about to declare the results. But he requested the judges to let him speak and after much cajoling, he was allowed. “Within minutes, the tables were turned and the audience was enthralled,” writes Nag. Vajpayee was declared the winner of the competition.
In the days and years that followed, the politician and former prime minister captivated hearts of millions with the brilliance of his speech. In more than six decades that he spent in active political life, Vajpayee has been noted for being the moderating force in the BJP, for emphasising on the need for making India a nuclear-armed state, and for being a staunch believer in Gandhian socialism and secularism. Yet, if there is one aspect of Vajpayee that will always define the persona of Vajpayee then that is his awe-inspiring oratory skills.
“He was unquestionably the greatest orator that India has heard since Independence,” writes Union Minister Arun Jaitley in his article, ‘Atal ji- The gentle giant’. Jaitley added that “he could play with words, but was always measured.” A writer and a poet before joining politics, Vajpayee’s dexterity with words was what brought him into the Lok Sabha. “The then bosses of the fledgling Jana Sangh realised that Atal’s way with words and the passion that he brought to his speeches were invaluable assets,” writes Nag.
Over the years, his words more than anything else made him the beloved of his party and even to those who were not part of the BJP. Even when he was sidelined by the BJP in preference for a more hardlined Hindutva approach, the impact of Vajpayee’s speeches was almost impossible to be recreated.
Vajpayee, the young wordsmith
Nag notes in his book that during his student days, Vajpayee was referred to as ‘Atal guru’ by his friends. “In those days, the young man would sit at Godhaji Hotel in Maharajwada area of Gwalior along with his friends, gossiping and discussing politics,” he writes. On such occasions, when Vajpayee spoke, the others listened with rapt attention. In the midst of one such session, he is believed to have made a short speech what was meant by ‘greatness’. “Just to say that only the one who has won a victory is a great man is erroneous. If this were so then Rana Pratap and Prithviraj Chauhan would have never been considered great. Greatness does not come from bigness of position or out of victory in wars. Greatness comes out of showing respect to others and being sensitive to their needs,” he is believed to have said.
Vajpayee’s way with words can definitely be traced to the fact that he was also a gifted poet and even when in parliament, often ended his speeches on a poetic note. In his collection of poems, “Meri Ekyaavan kavitayen” (My fifty-one poems), Vajpayee noted that his work as politician did not allow him to concentrate on poetry to the extent that he would like. In an interview with journalist Rajat Sharma, in the television show, ‘Aap ki adalat’, he had remarked on his inability to provide enough time to poetry. He said, “Rajneeti hi registaan mein kavita ki dhaara sookh gayi hain. (in the desert land of politics, my poetry has dried up)”.
Having witnessed a literary environment at home, Vajpayee had attended poetry recitation events from a very young age and as a keen listener had managed to master both the creativity and skill set required for playing with words, and also developed the desire to someday become a revolutionary poet. The intent of his philosophies which he would much later apply in the domain of politics was well preserved in the poetry of his days of youth. The first poem that he is believed to have written, on the Taj Mahal, revolved on the exploitation of the workers who built the monument. “Yamuna ki roti dhar vakal, kal-kal chal chal, kal-kal chal chal, jab Hindustan roya sakal, tab bana paaya Taj Mahal,” he wrote.
Vajpayee, the parliamentarian orator
Vajpayee’s political inclination was inspired by the work of politician Shyama Prasad Mukherjee who was himself a great orator. In fact, it is believed that the Jana Sangh wanted Vajpayee to join the ranks of the party as a replacement to Mukherjee after the latter’s death. Since his earliest days as member of the Jana Sangh, he delivered some of the most memorable speeches in the history of independent India. “His impassioned speech on Tibet in 1959 is considered by many as one of the best-ever delivered on the floor of the House by any member,” writes Nag. “The whole aim of China is to reduce the Tibetans to a minority in their own country and destroy the Tibetan personality. It is a new phenomenon, a new type of imperialism,” he is noted to have said in Hindi.
By the late sixties, Vajpayee had already become a well-known orator and would be frequently heard addressing political rallies. “Many youngsters used to repeat the sentences that they heard in his speech. They imitated his style,” writes Jaitley.
In 1977, he spoke in Hindi in the UN on apartheid and other issues gripping the world at that time.
However, his most well-known speeches were the ones he delivered in the most passionate and quirky style on the floor of the Lok Sabha during his years as prime minister. His eloquence would keep the House enchanted as spoke and would often burst out laughter at the choice of the prime minister’s witty words.
In 1996 after Vajpayee was sworn in as the tenth prime minister of India, he had to resign in a matter of 13 days since the BJP could not garner the support of the other parties to form a majority. In an impassioned speech in the Parliament, Vajpayee, with his well-measured animated style, remarked upon the fact that the party had worked hard to win the confidence of the people of the country. “Agar safalta na mili woh alag baat hain. Lekin hum phir bhi sadan mein sabse bade virodhi dal ke roop mein baithenge, aur aapko humara sahyog le kar sahyog chalana padega, (It is a different matter that we were not successful in winning a majority. But we will still sit in the same House as the leader of the opposition and you will need our cooperation in order to run the government),” he said to thunderous applause from party members.
In 1998, when he was sworn in as the prime minister yet again and managed to win the majority in the Parliament, he delivered a 40-minutes speech noting the inability of a coalition of parties to weaken them, the instability caused by the fall of two successive governments, the need to recognize and celebrate diversity in the country and the need for different parties to work together for the common good of the country. Yet again in May 1998 when India conducted nuclear tests in Pokhran, a debate emerged in the Parliament over the need for the same. Vajpayee once again in his oratory brilliance responded by focusing on the need for being self-armed. “Kya atma-raksha ki tayyari tabhi hogi jab khatra hoga? Agar tayyari pehle se ho, toh jo khatra aane wala hoga, who bhi door ho jayega (Should be build up our arms strength only when there is danger? If we are well prepared from beforehand then even if there is some danger around the corner, that will also shy away),” he said.
Vajpayee in his speeches, noted over and again, the need for unity among various factions regardless of caste, language, religion or political inclinations, in order for a democracy to sustain in the most successful way. In his last Independence day speech as prime minister, he ended in his characteristic style, with a poem he had written 40 years ago remarking on the need to walk together in order to succeed- “Badhaye aati hain aaye, ghire parlay ki ghor ghataye, paon ke neeche angare, sir par barse yadi jwalayen, nij haathon se haste haste, aag laga kar jalna hoga, kadam milakar chalna hoga”.