Was it one of those coincidences that one’s column posted on last Tuesday was titled “WANTED: A VAJPAYEE TOUCH!”? And the former Prime Minister passed away on Thursday! An old friend messaged “Read it with interest….it was well timed …as if you had a premonition of the passing away of ABV!” Well, one thinks it was just an inscrutable coincidence. There was a cartoon in the Indian Express by Unny the day after the state funeral. There is the national flag shown flying at half mast on what is the Parliament House and the comments, ”Not far from here a mob -in - mourning assault Swami Agnivesh”. There was also a report on how a professor of Bihar’s Mothihari Central University was dragged out of his third floor residence and almost lynched for allegedly criticising Vajpayee. One’s immediate reaction was that even before the embers of his funeral pyre were extinguished some people, projected as his followers, exhibited total absence of the Vajpayee touch!
So, what does one mean by the Vajpayee touch? Before dwelling on that one may mention that on Thursday night itself a tentative title was thought of for this piece as a sequel to the last week’s column, “Wanted: a Vajpayee Touch”. “Death of a Statesman” was considered appropriate emulating the famous play by Arthur Miller titled “Death of a Salesman”. But decided against it as the Indian Express on Friday morning had used this title. One went on a tangent and started playing with the words statesman and salesman. Atal ji was no salesman peddling FMCGs. Unlike many a flamboyant politician, he was an astute statesman. A statesman like Vajpayee was gentle, compassionate, democratic, sensitive and inclusive. No wonder people across the political spectrum admired him as an acceptable leader. Some of his erstwhile strong political opponents joined his coalition.That’s what one calls ‘a Vajpayee Touch’.
He was a Pracharak of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh and remained one till the end notwithstanding criticism from certain quarters that he had become a liberal. The statement by the RSS chief Mohan Bhagawat and Sarkaryavah Suresh [Bhayyaji]Joshi is testimony enough of Vajpayee being an unquestioned RSS Pracharak. ‘‘We are deeply saddened at the demise of Shraddheya Atal Bihari Vajpayee ji. Even in imagination, his departure from this mortal life is unbearable……Our last respect to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a giant politician with exceptional oratory skills and a dedicated Swayamsevak, who ruled over the hearts of countless Indians. Your memories will always continue to inspire us. Heartfelt Tribute’’.
He won the hearts of people with his democratic approach and non-partisan attitude. When it came to taking important decisions, he would go for consensus. If any opposition party had any misgiving or grievance about a policy decision he would call for a meeting and would discuss all their concerns and would incorporate possible changes in the decision.
He had major difference of opinion with opposition parties but at the personal level maintained excellent rapport with the opposition members.
After the Gujarat riots he reminded the then chief minister of that state of Raj Dharma. At the Goa BJP conclave there were demands for the resignation of that chief minister. Vajpayee was reportedly inclined to this. However when he realized that a majority of party leaders were against resignation of the chief minister he retraced his steps. Though he gave a fiery speech on the eve of the demolition of the so called disputed structure of Babari Masjid, it is said that he was against its destruction by ‘kar sevaks’ After it was demolished Vajpayee was upset and said that ‘this should not have happened’. When he had a major kidney problem and needed expert medical help, the then Prime minister facilitated his trip by sending him to the US as a member of some delegation. Later Vajpayee openly acknowledged, “Rajiv Gandhi is why I am alive”. Vajpayee shared the story with Karan Thapar after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991.
One of his speeches in Parliament after Pokhran 2 sums up Vajpayee’s world view: “ We have been victims of three attacks. This fate should not repeat. We are not getting ready to attack anyone. We don’t have that intention. I was asked about the connection between Pokhran 2 and the Lahore bus service. They are two sides of the same coin- the strength of our defence and the hand of friendship-the hand of friendship through honesty”.
One watched a programme on the legacy of Vajpayee on NDTV on Friday night. Speaking about Vajpayee Jyotiraditya Scindia the scion of the Gwalior royalty recalled how despite serious differences he, his father, the late Madhavrao Scindia and the entire family had great respect and affection for Vajpayee which was mutual. Others in the programme predictably stuck to their political convictions. One was surprised to hear even the new generation spokesperson continued the stand that when Vajpayee came to power there were virulent personal attacks on him and his policies including the Pokhran nuclear test of May 11,1998. Incidentally Vajpayee was heading a precarious coalition government which lasted 13 months from 1998 to 1999.[it may be added that his first term as Prime Minister in 1996 lasted just 13 days!]. When Vajpayee announced at a press conference that “India had become a full- fledged nuclear state’ everyone including the United States was taken by surprise. The opposition parties especially the Indian National Congress appeared confused and argued that it was just a gimmick. They of course questioned the legitimacy of a fumbling coalition government to take such a decision fraught with tremendous international ramifications. However a number of opposition parties, even some in the Congress were not exactly severe as far as the Pokhran 2 was concerned. One had interviewed leaders of various political parties on the test for a film “May Moon” on Pokhran 2 by K.Gopalakrishnan. Those interviewed included, among others, veteran leader and then minister L.K.Advani, Sharad Pawar, then still with the Indian National Congress, the late Ghulam Mohammed Banatwala of the Indian Union Muslim League etc. Cutting across party lines they had very objectively critiqued the sudden decision of Vajpayee to ask aerospace engineer and scientific Advisor to the PM Dr A P J Abdul Kalam [who later became the President of India], then head of the Defence Research and Development Organization [DRDO] and Dr R Chidambaram, then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission to conduct the test called ‘’Operation Shakti”.
Operation Shakti revealed the determination and leadership qualities of Vajpayee. While speaking to me for his radio biography [broadcast on AIR] Dr Kalam considered the test as a defining moment and lauded Prime Minister Vajpayee for his decisiveness and political will. He said that it was Vajpayee who made ‘the Buddha Smile’ [the code word used during the test]. Dr Kalam said that the world takes only countries with nuclear power seriously and that Vajpayee had realised this reality. Dr Kalam also said that the spinoffs of scientific research- nuclear and space were manifold with tremendous benefits in day to day applications.
One could never meet or speak to Vajpayee though one did a radio feature on him when he was still alive; but was in no position to give an interview. For the programme one spoke to a number of leaders and media persons who knew him personally or those who were his associates. Those interviews brought to light certain hitherto unknown facets of Vajpayee’s many splendored personality as a good human being. L K Advani, the co- founder of the Bharatiya Janata Party and close associate for over six decades shared Vajpayee’s love for food, especially sweets and revealed that he would himself often cook some of the most delicious ‘Kichadi’ ! Veteran journalist and former member of the Rajya Sabha H K Dua narrated how he had taken Vajpayee for a ride! Once Vajpayee was stuck somewhere and was waiting for some transport to go to the BJP Headquarters. Dua came on his scooter and asked Vajpayee whether he would like a lift. Vajpayee just jumped on the pillion and Dua dropped him at the BJP Headquarters. Many leaders and admirers waiting there were amused at the sight of Vajpayee alighting from the pillion of Dua’s scooter. Someone commented that this was news for the newspapers and suggested certain headlines. Dua however quipped that the newspaper headlines the next day would be, “Dua takes Vajpayee for a ride”! Vajpayee had a hearty laughter.
Diplomat turned politician and writer Pawan Verma speaking nostalgically remembered how he met Vajpayee for the translation into English of some of the Prime Ministers poems. He enjoyed doing the translations and read out some of them for the programme. He also said that Vajpayee was a very sensitive poet who wrote with passion; he also recalled Vajpayee’s humility and edifying manners. Vajpayee’s emotion-charged, passionate voice still reverberates in one’s mind, “Haar nahin Manoonga!” [ Won’t accept defeat! ] Yes, he was silent for over 12 years towards the end of his life but the leader in him never accepted defeat. And for millions of Indians, his memories linger on!