In 1992, the government of PV Narasimha Rao honoured Atal Bihari Vajpayee with a Padma Vibhushan. The announcement coincided with the tense climax of the then BJP president Murli Manohar Joshi's Ekta Yatra that involved unfurling the national tricolour in a deserted Lal Chowk in Srinagar.
It was an astonishingly large-hearted gesture because state honours for politicians have invariably been on partisan considerations. Within the Congress, Rao must have drawn flak for honouring the tallest leader of a party that was waging a political war against the government.
Vajpayee wasn't part of the small group that was airlifted by the administration from Udhampur to facilitate a symbolic flag-hoisting-Narendra Modi. Street marches and agitations, indispensable features of life in opposition, wasn't Atal ji's style. Although compelled to make token appearances, he preferred the stage at a public meeting or the floor of Parliament to come into his own. His reputation as a public speaker far exceeded the influence of the Jana Sangh. As a 14-year-old, I recall making a special effort to hear him speaking at a modest sized public meeting in Calcutta in 1970. There's nothing of the subject of his speech I remember but two facets of Vajpayee the orator were etched into my consciousness: his word play, particularly the use of the double entendre, and his sparkling wit.
Atal ji's oratory reflected his political personality: he was big-hearted and loved life. That made him a tall leader but an awkward politician. A good politician has to be attentive to details and willing to imbibe an equal dose of drudgery and excitement. Atal ji was impatient of details. He barely remembered names and was bored by endless committee meetings. He survived long stints as presidents of both the Jana Sangh and BJP courtesy individuals such as Sunder Singh Bhandari, Kushabhau Thakre and, of course, LK Advani. As prime minister, he was disproportionately dependent on his Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra to read his mind and do the needful.
So inadequate was his attention to detail that he often missed out on the cross-currents within the party. It is said that Nityanand Swami was appointed the first chief minister of Uttarakhand because that was the only name Atal ji was familiar with from the Jana Sangh days.
In one-on-one meetings, even those involving international leaders, Atal ji was tongue-tied, preferring to limit himself to cryptic observations that more often than not were razor sharp in precision. I once had the disconcerting experience of a 30-minute meeting where he spoke barely a few sentences, leaving me to hold forth on a range of subjects with an occasional grunt signalling approval or otherwise.
This, I was told, was nothing unusual. Atal ji's method of relaxation as prime minister was often to sit over a glass of masala Coke with close friends such as Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and Appa Ghatate. The gatherings were not marked by prolonged spells of utter silence.
However, underneath this seemingly reclusive individual lurked a very fine and astute political mind. Atal ji conducted his politics on the strength of instinct. Surveys and ideological posturing left him unmoved. At an election planning meeting in 1993 for the state election in Uttar Pradesh he glanced at the Ayodhya-centric posters that had been painstakingly prepared and asked: "Where is any reference to power, water and education?" He was right. An excessively Hindutva campaign cost the BJP that election. Long years of experience had taught him that voters were unlikely to be moved by abstract ideas alone. He was always mindful of the big picture.
Atal ji governed by instinct. He was an old-fashioned liberal who combined a commitment to personal freedom with a passion for economic freedom. At the same time he was also an enlightened conservative who believed that change had to be accompanied by an adherence to rootedness. This may explain his deep love for Hindi literature and his very old-world courteousness. Occasionally, just occasionally, and very strategically he threw a tantrum. But even these-like the famous "neither tired nor retired" remark that ended all speculation of a mid-term resignation-were marked with spectacular civility and, often, laced with a humorous aside.
Atal ji served India with commitment and oodles of style. It is only fitting that he has been honoured with a Bharat Ratna. Ideally, it should have come much earlier.