Atal Bihari Vajpayee has joined the immortals. I do not think he would want us to remember him in hagiography. He would, I believe, prefer one to remember him as he was, warts and all, his greatness highlighted by his gentle sense of humour, his wry wit, his ever-cheerful humility, his democratic ability to take criticism on the chin.
He was, above all, a truly outstanding parliamentarian, so outstanding that soon after he was first elected to the Lok Sabha in 1957, Pandit-ji was telling his confidantes within months that young Atal Bihari seemed to have in him the makings of a future Prime Minister. Two incidents when Atal-ji was still in his 30s illustrate this assessment.
Former Foreign Secretary M Rasgotra recounts in his autobiography, A Life in Diplomacy, how he received, when he was serving in the Indian Permanent Mission to the UN in 1958, a message from Prime Minister Nehru's office saying the PM was including a first-time MP, Vajpayee, in the Indian delegation to the UN General Assembly and directing Rasgotra to take personal charge of him and introduce him to as many world leaders as possible because Pandit-ji saw great potential in the young man.
The other incident relates to my rummaging through old newspapers in the dusty Mahadev Road archives of the Parliament House Library where I came across a small news-item on the back page of the Hindustan Times (October 1962), saying a four-member delegation of Jana Sangh MPs had called on PM Nehru to demand the immediate convening of parliament to discuss the on-going Chinese invasion. Nehru readily agreed and Vajpayee launched an all-out attack on Nehru that Nehru listened to politely and later replied to politely. That is how influential Vajpayee was even at the age of 36 with a Prime Minister from another party who, at the time, was exactly twice his age. (This is also a tribute to the democratic ethos that Nehru established and promoted).
I would, therefore, regard it as the lowest point of Vajpayee's own tryst with democracy that when I brought this to his attention in the middle of the Kargil war, requesting him to accept the Congress demand for convening the Rajya Sabha (the Lok Sabha having been dissolved), Vajpayee-ji, regrettably, persisted in refusing to do so.
What then would I regard as the high point? I would date it to Morarji Desai's choice of Vajpayee as Foreign Minister of the Janata Party government. I was then posted in a mission abroad and received with great shock and horror the news of a Jana Sanghi being entrusted with this key portfolio. In particular, I expected him to unleash a vitriolic attack on Pakistan. I was astonished but relieved to find I was completely wrong. On his first visit to Islamabad, he chose to give his banquet speech in a delightful mixture of impeccable Hindi and sparkling Urdu - exactly the Hindustani that Gandhi-ji had advocated for independent India - he not only overwhelmed the Pakistanis but also me. Yet, when it was announced that an Indian Consul General was to be posted to Karachi for the first time ever, my heart fell for I had long coveted that key post and now found that with only two years completed at my present posting, I would be out of the running. You can, therefore, imagine my thrill at being chosen over my potential rivals.
Vajpayee merely endorsed Foreign Secretary Jagat Mehta's choice of me for the Karachi posting, but I never failed to tease Vajpayee over his having selected me. He, for his part, never failed to walk into parliament when I took the floor to debate Pakistan-related issues. There grew up between us a warm rapport on India-Pakistan relations. I shall never forget his look of some approval and not a little envy as I once recited in the Lok Sabha a full list of all the places I have visited in Pakistan!
It was his greatest ambition to establish stable relations with China and Pakistan. He was thwarted - but the goal remains. Astonishing for a man reared on the Sangh Parivar's philosophy that he should seek such reconciliation. Perhaps this was the outcome of his bruising internecine battle with Balraj Madhok who had the most revanchist ideas on Partition and stayed with the dream of Akhand Bharat till the end of his life. Vajpayee knew that was a pipe-dream and pragmatically tried instead to repair the scars of Partition.
Ullekh NP's riveting biography of Vajpayee tells the amusing story of the teenage Atal Bihari defying his father's concern as a government servant over his son's political inclinations by smuggling his khaki shorts into his sister's hands who threw them over the wall as soon as Atal Bihari escaped out of the house, so that he could slip them on before running off to the local RSS shakha. It is something of a mystery how despite this early ideological drilling, Vajpayee retained an open mind and an even more open heart. He could never be extreme. At the same time he could never defy the Sangh. In consequence, while he refused to associate himself with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement championed by his oldest political companion, LK Advani, he never got around to publicly apologizing for the barbarous excesses to which the movement led.
And the most shameful U-turn he took was in March 2002 when, after roundly ticking off Modi for failing to observe the raj dharma, he did a chameleon trick and lavished praise on the very Chief Minister he had just a few days earlier strongly reprimanded. It took the sheen off Vajpayee.
But after years and years at the helm, his own hands remained untainted. Given the company he kept, that in itself could be regarded a gargantuan achievement. He emerged at his very best when he made his last visit to that Vale of Tears, Kashmir, and instinctively came up with the extempore formula: Insaniyat, Jamhooriyat, Kashmiriyat that stills reverberates in the Valley.
He called an early election in 2004 and tolled his own bell. As I took my oath as a cabinet minister in the incoming government, I looked across the floor and saw a beaten man, sunk in a misery of despair and disappointment. I walked up to him and, to the severe disapproval of my leaders, bent to touch his feet to take his blessings as I ventured out fulfill my ambitions at the same time as his had come crashing down. I have no regrets that I did so. For all our differences, he was truly a great man.
(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)
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