"Kya chal raha hai partner." What's up, asked Atal Bihari Vajpayee, seeking me out from a crowd of journalists at Lahore's Minar-e-Pakistan on February 21, 1999. He knew of my stint as Hindustan Times' Pakistan correspondent and was keen perhaps to know how his State visit, the last since by an Indian Prime Minister, was playing out in that country.
I wasn't sure until his helicopter landed at Iqbal Park that the PM of the "akhand bharat" (read BJP) party would visit the memorial to the Muslim League's 1940 call for a separate homeland. "It's a miracle, sir," I gushed. "If that's the message tou zara tafseel sey kahen (say it in some detail). Pakistanis always ask what purpose will be served by talking to people who do not recognize their wajood (existence) as a sovereign nation."
Now ailing, Vajpayee used to be a man of few words, unless on his feet in Parliament or while holding multitudes in thrall at public rallies. He listened and moved on, his security tactfully guiding me out of his immediate proximity. Atal Bihari Vajpayee: Life in pictures
But on the plush lawns of the West Punjab Governor's residence that evening, the BJP veteran surpassed himself--as an orator and a statesman. To me, he shone like a Ratna, Bharat Ratna that day itself.
The Punjabi elite at the civic reception sat bedazzled as Vajpayee began his speech in what Gandhiji used to call Hindustani, with the disclosure that his visit to the Minar was against the advice of a party colleague who accompanied him on the historic bus ride to Lahore the previous day.
"He told me I shouldn't go to Minar-e-Pakistan because that'll put my stamp on this country. I said Pakistan does not need my stamp of approval. It has a valid stamp of its own: Pakistan ki apni mohar hai jo chal rahi hai."
The right wing, anti-India Jamaat-e-Islami later had the Minar washed with rosewater in what it termed the memorial's 'ablution' after Vajpayee set foot there. That did not erase, however, from popular mind the impression the Indian leader made by his bold acceptance of the reality of Pakistan. In paradigm terms, it was a shift bigger than L K Advani's endorsement of Jinnah's 'secular' beliefs the Sangh parivar couldn't digest.
Pakistan betrayed the Lahore peace process in Kargil. But Vajpayee persisted with his hand of friendship, inviting Kargil mastermind Pervez Musharraf to Agra in 2001. It wasn't for want of his efforts that the Summit ended on a lunatic note. The madness flowed from Musharraf's megalomania and to some extent the internal BJP contradictions.
What followed was a near war scenario after the December 2001 terrorists attack on Indian Parliament. Two years down the line, a high-profile visit to Pakistan by Indian parliamentarians afforded another opening for peace. Vajpayee seized it with alacrity, making Musharraf commit in January 2004 to non-use of his country's territory by terrorists perpetuating violence against India. Mumbai's 26/11 made a mockery of the Pakistani promise. But history must judge Vajpayee by what he achieved against odds--at home and in the neighbourhood.
Legacy in Pakistan
So durable is his image among urbane Pakistanis that some people in the audience took strong exception to a comparison I unwittingly made between his "Pakistan ki mohar (stamp)" address with the speech of the West Punjab governor at a reception for Indian journalists whom Musharraf allowed to visit PoK in late 2004. I had merely recalled Vajpayee's speech on the same lawns to compliment our host, a retired general, for his good words for the peace process. But discerning Pakistanis would have none of it. "How dare you insult a man of Vajpayee's stature by comparing him with the minion of a dictator," asked a journalist. I had no answer. I apologised.
Anti-Sikh riots and the 1984 vote
I once asked a BJP leader to recall one action or policy for which posterity should remember Vajpayee. He couldn't guess but agreed wholeheartedly when reminded of his leader's role in ensuring the secular character of the 1984 vote after Indira Gandhi's assassination. That was the time when the Congress cared little for the Sikh support. It was left to Vajpayee, then president of BJP, to reach out to the alienated community. And he did so admirably, denouncing at public rallies the mayhem in the aftermath of Indira's murder by her Sikh security guards.
The hugely polarised vote saw the BJP (with two seats) getting reduced to a rump in the Lok Sabha. K C Pant joined the saffron party in subsequent years. But he was at a loss for words on being asked--after winning the New Delhi seat on a Congress ticket in 1984--whether he won on a secular vote? Self-doubt writ large on his face, he tamely argued: "I received support from all sections…"
In 1990, L K Advani launched his Ram Rath Yatra over Ayodhya's temple-mosque dispute. That prompted the RSS top brass to ask Vajpayee, then a forlorn figure in the BJP, to lead the party in Parliament in Advani's place. He refused. I met him thereafter at his Raisina Road bungalow. The conversation was interrupted by his daughter who wanted him over for lunch. But a tearful Vajpayee said it all in one line: "How can I defend in the House an issue on which I have basic disagreement."
The Bharat Ratna conferred on Vajpayee is richly deserved. He's the BJP's Nehru--acceptable to even those who disagree with the ideology of his party or the broader political parivar.
(Vinod Sharma is Hindustan Times' political editor)
Watch | Bharat Ratna for Atal Bihari Vajpayee: Take a quick look at his political journey