I have been lucky in my political career so far as the leaders with whom I worked are concerned. In the beginning of my career it was Chandra Shekhar who took me under his wings and became my political guru. When I joined the BJP, it was the combination of Atal and Advani who gave me their love, affection and guidance. But it was when I joined the government of Atal ji in 1998 as finance minister and started working closely with him that I realised what a great man he is.
Long years in public life and an elevation from the bottom to the top endowed him with an understanding of the country and its problems like nothing else could. His understanding of international affairs and foreign policy was unparalleled. He had an innate sense of getting to the root of the problem and giving a direction to policies and programmes to tackle those problems.
When I was preparing my first budget in 1998 and went to him for guidance, he told me that I should take care of the farmers of India and the rural economy.
The Kisan Credit Card scheme and the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana – to mention just two among many others – were born out of this guidance.
He gave his whole-hearted support to the national highways’ development programme that I had initiated in my very first budget.
He was a great supporter of economic reforms and but for him the insurance sector reforms would not have seen the light of day. He gave his unstinted support for all major policy reforms.
When I was made the external affairs minister and again went to seek his guidance, he asked me to concentrate on India’s immediate neighbourhood.
Following this, I made my first visit to Maldives, followed by Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Pakistan came later.
When I accompanied Atal ji to the Saarc summit in January 2004, the 17-line joint press statement that was issued after his meeting with Musharraf was a landmark. The same Musharraf who thought he would take Atal ji for a ride at Agra had to admit that Pakistan was exporting terror to India and had to agree to put an end to it as a pre-condition for the resumption of dialogue between the two countries.
His capacity to manage the contradictions of a coalition is now legendary. I do not think anyone else could have managed the affairs of the NDA as well as he did. He often took one step back to take two steps forward. And this left everyone pleased and satisfied.
But, above all, Atal ji is a fine human being with the heart of an extremely sensitive poet. He is a great orator who mesmerised the crowds. As prime minister, he decided to be a little reticent and was a man of few words.
His interlocutors hung on to every word he uttered. Such was his influence as a world leader.
Such a person is born only once in ages. By conferring Bharat Ratna on him, the government has only added glory to the Bharat Ratna.
(The writer served as finance and external affairs minister in the Vajpayee government)