It was admittedly a casual comment but it stayed with me all week and made me think deeply. Last Saturday, Sanjaya Baru said there is one man who, more than any other, deserves the Bharat Ratna but, he fears, might never get it: Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
In fact, Sanjaya went further. When he was the PM’s media advisor he suggested both Vajpayee and Jyoti Basu should be conferred the Bharat Ratna together. As India’s longest serving chief minister and the man who democratised communism, Basu richly deserved it. Giving it to him alongside Vajpayee would, he hoped, overcome reservations about honouring an opponent and one from the BJP at that.
I’m astonished Dr Manmohan Singh didn’t agree. It’s a gesture that would have found nationwide applause. Only the curmudgeonly could have disagreed. I fear the Dear Doctor made a foolish mistake. But it’s not too late to rectify.
Let me give you two reasons why this should happen. First, of the 41 recipients of the Bharat Ratna, I’ve calculated that 23 were, at least for a brief period, members of the Congress. Even MG Ramachandran was briefly a Congressman and BR Ambedkar served in a Congress government. But no one from the BJP or the communist parties has ever got it.
There is, however, a further reason why Vajpayee should get the Bharat Ratna and it’s one that’s as yet unknown to Singh. But it’s a story I can vouchsafe for.
In 1991, after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, I contacted Vajpayee to ask if he would speak about the departed leader. I’ll never forget what followed.
Vajpayee invited me to his home for a chat. Sitting in his garden he said he wanted to explain something before he answered my request. “When Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister,” he began, “he somehow found out I had a kidney problem and needed treatment abroad. One day he called me to his office and said he was going to include me in India’s delegation to the UN and hoped I would use the opportunity to get the treatment I needed. I went to New York and that’s one reason I’m alive today.”
This wasn’t what I expected to hear. Vajpyaee was well aware of that. “So do you see my problem, Karan?” he asked. “Today I’m in the Opposition and people expect me to speak like an opponent. But I can’t. I only want to talk about what he did for me. If that’s okay with you, I’ll do it. If not, I have nothing to say.”
Vajpayee’s comments were the high point of the anecdotal obituary of Rajiv Gandhi I helped put together. It’s part of the records of Eyewitness (June 1991), the video magazine for which it was recorded.
If you recall that five years earlier Vajpayee had lost his own seat in the wave that swept Rajiv Gandhi to power and was among his strongest critics after Bofors, this desire to praise him was remarkable. In fact, as remarkable as Rajiv’s own thoughtfulness and generosity.
I can’t believe the good Doctor Singh won’t display the same warmth and recognition to his opponents. I know him to be a large-hearted and fair man. Perhaps someone or something is holding him back?
After seven years at the top it’s time to break free. And remember, if Rajiv Gandhi deserved the Bharat Ratna then, undoubtedly, so too do Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Jyoti Basu.
Views expressed by the author are personal