My first experience with Atal-ji after joining the BJP was not very encouraging. I had been in touch with Advani-ji who was the President of the party then about joining the BJP. I worked out the details of my joining in consultation with him. I had not established contact with anybody else in the party until then. But after joining the party, I felt I should also meet the other big leader of the party, namely Vajpayee-ji. So I spoke to him and he gave me time to call on him. However, when I went to his residence in Raisina Road, I was shocked to find that he was not at home and had left no instructions for me. I was sorely disappointed.
Atal-ji and I were not strangers as we were both in the Rajya Sabha then. He was the chairman of the Petitions Committee of the House and I was one of its members. We had also travelled together to Nepal for a seminar. Thus, I did not expect that Atal-ji would give me an appointment and forget about it. Yet, he did. He more than made up for this when he travelled all the way to Patna to offer me a glass of juice to end a three-day fast which I had undertaken against the brutality witnessed in the inter-caste war in the Lakshamanpur Bathe massacre in 1997.
I did not join his government in 1996 because I was not then a member of parliament. But I had successfully contested the Lok Sabha election of 1998 and was naturally hoping to be included in the cabinet. After the oath-taking ceremony was over in Rashtrapati Bhavan on March 19, 1998, there was a brief meeting of the newly constituted cabinet. After the end of the 15-minute meeting, Atal-ji was walking back to his room in the South Block when I accosted him and sought his permission to go to my constituency, Hazaribagh, for a few days. He looked at me quizzically and came out with his famous one-liner, "Who will prepare the budget if you go away?" The portfolios had not yet been distributed and this was the first indication that he gave about the Finance portfolio coming to me. The portfolios were announced later that evening and I was indeed made the Finance Minister of India.
The next day, I called on him at his residence and told him that from the brief experience I had of the Finance Ministry, I could say that it head would be only as effective as the trust he enjoyed of the Prime Minister. "I hope I have your trust."
His reply was brief and telling when he said in Hindi, "Poora vishwas hai (you have my full confidence)".
Those were difficult days for the economy. The East Asian crisis was raging in our backyard. The entire global economy was passing through difficult and uncertain times. India was not untouched by this crisis. Our foreign reserves were depleting rather fast. As I was preparing to tackle this crisis, I was suddenly confronted with another, much worse crisis. Atal-ji called me to his place in early May 1998 and told me that he had decided to conduct nuclear tests over the next few days. "This step would not have the approval of many powerful countries and we would have to take steps to meet the backlash, specially in the economic field." I was left stunned by this statement. I was aware of the sensitive nature of the information he had conveyed to me. I knew I could not share it with anyone else so I kept it to myself and kept wondering what I should do to meet the challenges that would arise on the economic front.
As expected, the announcement of the news of the nuclear tests was followed immediately by almost all the western democracies imposing economic sanctions on India. The Germans went a step further and refused to talk to the joint secretary of our ministry who was in Berlin already for aid talks. He had to return from there empty-handed. But we met the challenge of economic sanctions head-on. Atal-ji had told me that there was no question of India pleading with any country to lift the sanctions. "We must manage things in such a way that the sanctions hurt the sanctioning countries more than they hurt India," he told me. We were able to manage the situation in exactly that way and the sanctioning countries ultimately started withdrawing the sanctions one by one after some time. My biggest worry was on the foreign exchange front, knowing full well that we would not have recourse to the IMF or other international financial institutions for help in case of a balance of payments crisis. We therefore decided to appeal to NRIs who were very appreciative of India's nuclear tests and we came out with the Resurgent India Bonds in August 1998. I had expected to collect about $2 billion. We ended up collecting over $4 billion within a very short time. After this there was no looking back. The world knew that India could not be subdued and under Atal-ji would do exactly what was in its own national interest.
Atal-ji was no economist. But his long years in public life had given him an understanding of the economic issues facing the country that was far superior to that of any trained economist. It was this fundamental understanding which enabled him to guide us throughout our tenure in government and achieve great goals on the economic front and take India from strength to strength. A senior international economist once told me that India, like China, was now the preferred destination for foreigners who thronged to Delhi as much as they thronged to Beijing. It was this strength which the world recognised and started to invite Atal-ji to sit with them on the global high table.
India had finally arrived on the international scene as an equal and a preferred partner.
I spent more time with him when I shifted to the Ministry of External Affairs. We travelled to many countries together. He was always extremely affectionate, considerate and gave full space to his ministers to discharge the responsibilities assigned to them. He never stopped any minister from airing his views at cabinet meetings and decisions were taken on the basis of consensus. But he also knew how to make his views prevail in the end.
When I went to him for guidance after joining the External Affairs Ministry, he told me to first give my attention to India's neighbours. It was wholesome advice and I visited our neighbouring countries one by one before embarking on visits to other countries. Atal-ji understood the nuances of global affairs better than most. This was the reason for the respect he commanded from his peers. He was a man of few words but his interlocutors listened to what he said with great attention. His initiative in improving relations with Pakistan was appreciated also by the people of Pakistan where his popularity was so high that it was said jokingly that he could easily win an election in Pakistan from wherever he contested. He was able to repair our relationship with the USA after the nuclear tests and without damaging the time tested relationship with Russia. His outreach to Asean and other Asian countries led to a remarkable improvement in our relations with those countries.
So, in both the ministries that I handled in his government, I had occasion to work very closely with him. It was a rare privilege which I shall cherish forever.
Yashwant Sinha, former BJP leader, was Minister of Finance (1998-2002) and Minister of External Affairs (2002-2004)
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