Atal Bihari Vajpayee was so much more than a great orator, says Pranab Mukherjee
Former president Pranab Mukherjee spoke exclusively to Hindustan Times about former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who died on Thursday.india Updated: Aug 20, 2018 16:08 IST
Former President Pranab Mukherjee saw former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee from across the aisle for over five decades, and as senior leaders from the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), they often crossed swords in the House. Over the course of their encounters, they developed a warm friendship, built on respect and admiration. Mukerjee spoke to Saubhadra Chatterji and Prashant Jha about Vajpayee – the man, the politician, the leader, and the friend. Edited excerpts:
Atal Bihari Vajpayee and you were friends for more than five decades. How did this friendship evolve?
When I met him first, I used to watch his performance in Parliament but we were not personally known to each other. When I became a minister — first for revenue and expenditure and then revenue and banking — I used to go to Lok Sabha more frequently. But I don’t remember the exact occasion when I met him for the first time.
Apart from being friends, Vajpayee and you were next-door neighbours. You once told us how your dog had bitten Vajpayee.
(laughs) Oh that became a big story. We used to go together for morning walks. But that morning, I was not there with him. I met him during a meeting with the Opposition parties in Parliament. He had a bandage in his hand. So, I asked him what happened. He replied, “Your dog has done this.”
He had a small dog. My wife (late Suvra Mukherjee) told me that my dog possibly attacked his dog, and as he tried to save his pet, he got injured.
He was very fond of food.
Yes. And my wife used to cook food for him. We lived next door and they made an entrance through a side wall so Vajpayee and his family members could come easily to our place. He was very fond of fish. Namita, his foster daughter, used to regularly play at our place. My wife and Mrs Kaul (Namita’s mother) had a very deep bonding. When Namita’s marriage was decided, my wife helped in preparations because the groom was a Bengali.
What were Vajpayee’s qualities as a parliamentarian?
He was an excellent parliamentarian and carried people along with him. I think he was one of the top-most parliamentarians I have ever come across.
Although he represented a small party, Jana Sangh, but particularly after the Fourth Lok Sabha, from 1967 onwards, he was seen as the leader of the Opposition. He played the role of a titan in the Opposition space.
He was an excellent orator and very well-studied. Although his speeches were laced more with emotional appeal, he had a mastery over facts as well. What a parliamentarian must do is not to deliver an emotional speech alone but it should be backed by facts.
On several occasions, we debated in Parliament. In those times, a lot of legislative business was handled by the minister of state for finance. For instance, many states were under President’s Rule and their budgets, their supplementary demands, were handled by the MoS.
I remember that once I piloted the Delhi Sales Tax bill in Parliament. At that time, Vajpayee ji was not a member from the New Delhi constituency (he later represented New Delhi in 1977 and 1980) but in a masterly presentation of facts and figures, he argued that Delhi is suffering by being a centrally administered area; whereas neighbouring states have freedom to impose sales tax, it doesn’t have that advantage. Ultimately, the government agreed to that and he supported the bill.
He was never a minister before 1974. But I still remember that the information he possessed was much more than what was there even in my official brief.
In those years, he belonged to Jana Sangh, an outfit with a very different world view. Observers say he was very liberal. It is also said about Vajpayee that he was the right man in the wrong party.
He was very much liberal but I would not say if he was a right man in a wrong party or not -- that is a description of a section of the press.
Vajpayee often mentioned Nehru. He was seen as an admirer of Nehru.
A few times he mentioned Nehru. But he used to recognise the contribution of Nehru in introducing and stabilising parliamentary democracy in India.
How was his relationship with Indira Gandhi?
He was a very bitter critic of Mrs. Gandhi but we must also remember that after the 1971 Indo-Pak war, he had described her as Goddess Durga at a function in the Central Hall of Parliament. How can a person praise someone in such a manner unless he has wide appreciation for her actions?
Vajpayee became India’s foreign minister in 1977. How do you evaluate his tenure in the South Block during that time?
I may not be an objective critic as we, in the Congress, never subscribed to his theory of “genuine non-alignment”. So, naturally, we said non-alignment is non-alignment and it doesn’t need any adjective or qualification. But he told us that our non-alignment is not equidistant from both the US and the USSR. He said it is tilted towards the USSR and we want to disconnect it. Perhaps he saw it from the background of the Indo-Soviet treaty for friendship which was signed during Indira Gandhi and Leonid Brezhnev’s time.
But he got good exposure outside as he visited various states. He also became the first person to speak in Hindi at the United Nations.
How do you judge him as a Prime Minister?
He was a good Prime Minister and a good leader. He took people along with him. History will eventually judge him, but as a student of politics, I find that he was very liberal. It was he who made it a system that the Opposition members, too, would be sent to United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). The practice was started by Jawaharlal Nehru. Four leaders would go on behalf of India and stay at the UN for a full three months. When he became PM, the number of the delegations didn’t increase, but I remember he always took Opposition leaders. He took a Congress MP, former deputy minister KC George from Kerala, in his delegation.
How do you evaluate his foreign policy as the PM?
He seriously tried to make a breakthrough in the Kashmir policy and in our relations with Pakistan. The Agra summit with Pervez Musharraf was a failure. But a very serious effort was made in his bus trip to Lahore. It was a great step. And after the Shimla Agreement, the most important is the Lahore Agreement inked in 1999. He did another thing. At the Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) summit in 2004, the exact words of that agreement said, “Pakistan will not allow any parts of its territory to be used by forces inimical to India.” This commitment he got is till today a weapon in the hand of every Prime Minister, every foreign minister and every negotiator to remind Pakistan that you made a commitment.
Why do you think the Vajpayee government lost in 2004?
It was his miscalculation to advance the elections in 2004. He should have seen the trend that the Congress was gaining. Out of the four assembly elections held in the winter of 2003 in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi, they won three. Some of his colleagues felt that since we have won these three assemblies, let us advance the election. They also did an extraordinary thing. They did not adjourn sine die the Winter session of Parliament in 2003 but it was prorogued. So, in the beginning of 2004, the President of India could not give a speech to the joint sitting of two Houses.
He once asked your help to get the Patents bill passed.
Otherwise India would have been expelled from WTO. He saved that.
We could not pass the bill during our tenure due to fierce opposition by the BJP’s Murli Manohar Joshi and Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s Ashok Mitra. I had tried very hard. They formed a group to oppose the bill. Then our government lost the election. I tried to convince the new agriculture minister Chaturanan Mishra to push the bill, as otherwise it would lead to great problems in our country. He told me, how can I put back toothpaste after it has come out of the tube? Meanwhile, that government collapsed.
The Vajpayee government came to power. He sought help from Dr. Manmohan Singh, as during that period my mother had passed away and I was not in Delhi. Dr Singh and I talked and I told him they have only changed two things from the original bill I had moved - the date and name of the mover of the bill. We had a hearty laugh. I later spoke to Sonia Gandhi and told her that just because her seat has changed in Parliament, our policies should not change and we should support the bill. She agreed and told me that I need to convince our party MPs.
Vajpayee was so gracious, he said he will speak after the debate to specially thank me. I said there is no need. Then he asked me to initiate the debate after the minister Murasoli Maran introduces the bill. That day I spoke as if I am the minister and Jitendra Prasad said, “You have spoken enough for them. Now please stop. We will support the bill.”
Was Vajpayee a secular politician?
Of course, he was a secular politician.
In your last flight to Kolkata as the President of India, you told us that every day you thought of four ailing leaders: Vajpayee, Priyaranjan Dasmunshi, George Fernandes and Jaswant Singh.
Vajpayee was healthy till 2005. Then his health started to slowly deteriorate. I remember I made an exception when I went to his house to give him the Bharat Ratna.
The President of India never goes out of Rashtrapati Bhavan for any civilian awards function in Delhi. That’s why even for posthumous awards, the relatives of the recipients have to come to Rashtrapati Bhavan to receive the awards.
My office, my people, searched all relevant documents and files but could not find any precedence of the President going out of Rashtrapati Bhavan to give these awards. I will not mention the name of a President, but once he had even ruled out the proposal to go outside to give an award after it was suggested to him.
So, the same question came when Vajapyee was to be given the Bharat Ratna. Prime Minister Modi asked me. They were thinking of bringing him in a stretcher. I told the Prime Minister that let me think for a day. I decided to go. So, I wrote on the file that it will not be treated as precedent. This is a one-time exception done by me but I myself must point out that it should not be treated as precedent and all these awards must be given inside the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Namita told me he understands things and knew that I was coming. That was the first time I went to his house at Krishna Menon Marg and the second and last time was when he passed away on August 16.
First Published: Aug 20, 2018 08:21 IST