Atal Bihari Vajpayee: A towering leader, his work set the gold standard for statecraft
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Atal Bihari Vajpayee: A towering leader, his work set the gold standard for statecraft

Atal Bihari Vajpayee , arguably the greatest statesman in India’s recent history, conquered his opponents but left no bitter aftertaste.

india Updated: Aug 16, 2018 19:21 IST
Saubhadra Chatterji
Saubhadra Chatterji
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Atal Bihari Vajpayee,Vajpayee,BJP
Atal Bihari Vajpayee addressing a rally at India Gate lawns demanding recognition of Bangladesh and release of Mujibur Rahman in 1971.(HT Archive)

It was one of those Rajya Sabha debates in which Opposition parties united to denounce the Prime Minister’s newest foreign policy venture.

Finally, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Prime Minister, stood up to reply. And after half-an-hour, even as their arguments lay demolished, Opposition leaders had no choice but to laugh heartily; Vajpayee was at his wittiest best.

He reminded Congress’ Natwar Singh, the most critical voice in the debate, that once he wrote a letter praising Vajpayee’s parliamentary speeches.

Kuldeep Nayyar had asked Vajpayee what happened to his promise to move forward. Vajpayee retorted, “Nayyar ji, we met at the stairs. You asked me, where do I want to go? I replied, main aage jaana chahta hoon.”

His best was reserved for Ram Jethmalani who launched a bitter attack on Vajpayee’s close friend and then national security advisor, Brajesh Mishra.

“Ram Jethmalani ji is a senior advocate. He loves to stand up for any case. He fights a case which he understands. He also fights cases he doesn’t understand,” quipped Vajpayee amid roars of laughter.

Watch: Remembering Atal Bihari Vajpayee: Poet, politician and statesman

Vajpayee, arguably the greatest statesman in India’s recent history, showed us that you don’t necessarily need aggression and shrillness of voice to counter Opposition forces. In Parliamentary politics, he conquered his opponents but left no bitter aftertaste. His world was not confined to his own party, he kept the doors open for everyone.

During the second Iraq war, a senior cabinet minister had floated news that India may back US forces against Saddam Hussain. A few days later, Vajpayee invited then Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet and his Communist Party of India counterpart AB Bardhan for tea.

They chatted about the old days until the Left leaders sensed that Vajpayee might have some serious reasons to sit with them. Surjeet thought of the Iraq situation and asked if the government would indeed send Indian troops there. Vajpayee sounded stoic, “I haven’t said it. But what to do? I don’t see any protests against this plan!”

Read: ‘The uncompromising patriot’: Shakti Sinha on working closely with Vajpayee

The ace Leftists got the signal. The very next day, the Left launched country-wide protests against sending troop to Iraq and at the next cabinet meeting, Vajpayee announced that in view of the protests, India could not send its troops to Iraq.

Hours after terrorists attacked the Parliament building in 2001, then Congress president Sonia Gandhi called Vajpayee to enquire about his wellbeing. Next day, Vajpayee told the Lok Sabha, “When the Leader of the Opposition calls the Prime Minister to enquire about the latter’s health, then we know that India’s democracy is in good health.” For many years, Vajpayee’s dear friend, Congress veteran Pranab Mukherjee, used to narrate this anecdote in his speeches to Congress workers to underline the value of Indian politics.

He epitomised the ideals of tolerance. The liberal ideal amid many hawks, Vajpayee occupied the high moral ground throughout his life.

One of his finest speeches was the one during the floor test his 13-day government faced in 1996. The first leader to deliver a Hindi speech at the United Nations, Vajpayee’s Hindi became the gold standard of political oratory. In Parliament, he found friends and admirers, not adversaries.

Read: Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s complex relationship with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh

First Published: Aug 16, 2018 17:33 IST