December 25, marked 92 years of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s momentous life journey. His story is the life history of a personality who has lived Indian civilisation, culture and politics in every breath that he has taken.
I’d like to begin with a personal experience. Many residents of Jammu appeared perplexed on the afternoon of January 25, 1992. A large number of outsiders had begun to converge on the city for the past two to three days. In fact, former BJP national president Murli Manohar Joshi had announced that he was intent on hoisting the national flag at Srinagar’s Lal Chowk on January 26. His appeal was the reason the crowds were arriving in Jammu. Tensions around the Ayodhya issue were at their peak those days. In September 1990, by taking out his Rath Yatra, Lal Krishna Advani had become a hero for a certain section of society. Did Joshi want to score a point over Advani using Kashmir as an excuse?
Away from the packs of news-gatherers, I was keeping an eye on the proceedings from a guest house. Sources were telling me that the Jammu and Kashmir government had managed to persuade Mr Joshi to leave the crowds milling around him behind and hoist the flag with a smaller set of people.
On the one hand the masses that had gathered in Jammu were raring to visit Srinagar and on the other separatists were gearing up for a confrontation. The pacifists did not know how to assuage the feelings of their supporters.
Nobody had an idea that Atal Bihari Vajpayee had been given the responsibility of soothing the tempers of the agitators. The senior leadership of the BJP had decided that Atalji will address people during a public meeting at the stadium. He began his long speech by speaking about the sacrifice of Shyama Prasad Mukherjee and then, after giving a long explanation of the tense situation, ended by saying that even he wanted to visit Srinagar but wouldn’t get the permission.
One doesn’t know whether it was the magic of his personality or his words, but the people agreed to change their mind. When to exude fire and when to stay cool as ice, is an art one should learn from Atalji.
The same Atal Bihari Vajpayee, when he went on to become the Prime Minister of India, tactfully managed to connect Kashmir to the mainstream to a big extent. He knew that this wasn’t possible without friendship with Pakistan. He also knew that our neighbour doesn’t just understand the language of love. Within two months of regaining power in 1998, by conducting nuclear tests at Pokharan, he sent out the message that India would not bow down or be put under pressure. India didn’t desert the road to peace despite Kandahar, Kargil or the parliament attack. Had the Agra Summit dialogue succeeded, the destiny of this subcontinent would have transformed forever. Why didn’t the talks succeed? Was he battling his opponents within his government and organisation? The answers to these questions are buried in the folds of mystery.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee had to face these conflicts throughout his long political career. When he leant towards rational liberalisation on the economic front, his senior associate Balraj Madhok opened a front against Vajpayee himself.
Often news emerged from the BJP’s inner circle about his differences with the Sangh and his associates, but the long-time architect of a constructive Opposition knew that politics wasn’t a fairy tale. Everything didn’t have a happy ending here.
That’s why we can notice a unique continuum in his long political career that elevates him much higher than just victory and defeat. He didn’t look just at criticism that came his way but always at his goal. He utilised the Opposition’s help whenever he needed. Even his opponents didn’t hesitate to knock at his door. He practised the politics of agreement, not resistance. That’s why when Atal ji was in office, India achieved a stable GDP growth of 6-7%. His golden quadrilateral scheme brought together four corners of the country. The space allotted to this column isn’t enough to discuss the achievements of his governance. No other contemporary Indian politician had such a capacity to look at India and the world holistically.
The cocktail of politics and power often ends up stifling human sensitivity. Vajpayee is an exception to this. His poems give a glimpse of the sensitive person behind the politician. Besides talking about being lonely at the top, he is also seen praying that regardless of the heights he achieves, he should never forget his polite nature. If you want to know what Atalji himself thought about these subjects, apart from his poems, you should pay attention to these lines.
These are part of a speech he made on August 17, 1994, after being selected as the best parliamentarian. “It is easy to speak in ceremonies to honour others. It is tough to find words when you are yourself being honoured. I am aware of my limitations and I recognise my faults. The adjudicators must have ignored my limitations and mistakes to select me. This is a wonderful, unique nation. You can even worship a stone by putting vermillion on it.”
Disease has played havoc with Atalji’s voice and memory. For years, he hasn’t been face-to-face with the Indians whom he has appreciated ever since he grew up.
Vajpayee’s absence from public life keeps rankling me.
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan