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Tuesday, Aug 20, 2019

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

Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s former private secretary writes, “Vajpayee was an uncompromising patriot, with a strong sense of his Hinduness, which was cultural and civilisational. That meant that the primary loyalty citizens was to the country.”

india Updated: Aug 16, 2018 19:40 IST
Shakti Sinha
Shakti Sinha
New Delhi
In this May 11, 1998, file photo former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announces India's nuclear test, in New Delhi.
In this May 11, 1998, file photo former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announces India's nuclear test, in New Delhi. (PTI File Photo)

It must have been November or early December 1970 at Ranchi that I first saw and heard Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

It was an election meeting in the early evening and the mid-sized Kutchery ground was quite full. Indira Gandhi, who ran a minority government with the support of the Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India (Marxist) had called for early elections. The leading opposition parties, Congress (O), Jan Sangh, Swatantra Party and the Samyukta Socialist Party, had formed a Mahagatbandhan (Grand Alliance). It seemed to pose a very formidable challenge to the ruling Congress (R) of Mrs Gandhi.

Updates: ‘Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s death marks end of an era,’ says PM Modi

Just as Vajpayee began to speak, it started drizzling. Naturally, he interpreted it as the blessing of Lord Indra. The crowd loved it, the speech was mesmerising and we all felt elated. Though not for very long -- the other Indira swept the elections, including in Ranchi, where the Jan Sangh candidate Rudra Pratap Sarangi lost. The Mahagatbandhan was created with the sole motivation of “Indira hatao” (remove Indira). It had developed no coherent vision, no alternative point of view; it was hobbled together only to get rid of her. It had learnt no lessons from past defeats and assumed that if the parties got together, then mechanically, their polling numbers would stack up enough to defeat her. Indira Gandhi was relatively alone and all she said was “Garibi hatao” (remove poverty). The people gave her a crushing mandate, 330 MPs out of 536 in the Lok Sabha.

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Getting to know Vajpayee at a personal level after I got married in 1980 and often visited 6 Raisina Road to meet my wife’s aunt and cousins (my wife is related to Vajpayee’s foster family), was a very slow process. Baap ji, as he was called, was a notoriously shy person, and generally kept to himself; when present, he was a man of very few words. It was clear that while he could speak to tens of thousands very intimately, he could be quite retiring in close groups.

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


I realised this in full measure when I started working for him on 13 May 1996 when he became the Prime Minister, the head of a government whose days were numbered even as he was being sworn in. I continued working with him when he became, once more, the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. As the office of the LoP, as it universally called in Parliament, was very small, the work was quite taxing. I had to read all the letters he used to receive, and after talking to him, prepare replies to important letters myself. As a result, I worked closely with him.

A mesmerising public speaker, Vajpayee could hold audiences, and not just supporters in thrall, but not just through eloquence. What impressed me the most was his ability to make a logical argument that was very well structured. This came, I realised, from a very disciplined brain of someone who never found work boring and was always willing to devour more information and analysis. This may surprise many as the general impression created of him was of a person removed from the nitty-gritty of party work or administration.

The best way to illustrate this is to describe his preparation for important political speeches, in Parliament or outside. The library at parliament was usually very quick in delivering a pack of material containing all relevant written material on any subject. He would read that and other articles and debate proceedings very carefully, and start writing long notes, but not in any particular order. In the process, he would presumably process the material and structure the speech. Though he used to carry the notes, he would not look at them except to check specific quotations. The famous pauses, to hazard a guess, gave him the space to choose the right word and phrase necessary for effective delivery of the message.

The same meticulous attention went into reading the detailed briefs that the Ministry of External Affairs prepared for meetings with foreign dignitaries, often running into hundreds of pages.

Read: Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s deft foreign policy helped forge stronger relationships

I still remember the meeting held at 7 Race Course Road after the famous July 4 statements of Bill Clinton and Nawaz Sharif, where the latter agreed that the Pakistani army would withdraw from the Kargil heights. Some of us felt that the statement was not unequivocal enough, but after listening to others, the Prime Minister felt that the statement was enough to ensure the withdrawal. He was right.

That Vajpayee was able to develop a very close personal equation with Nawaz Sharif is well known. Though they first met at the SAARC summit in Colombo (August 1998), it was a few months later at New York when both were in New York for the UN General Assembly and Vajpayee hosted a lunch for Sharif that they hit it of very well. Both wanted to end the state of hostility and move on towards peace as good neighbours. Vajpayee always used to say: “You can choose your friends but not your neighbours”. He, and Nawaz Sharif staked their personal reputation and political equity on moving ahead but Pakistan’s Deep State quickly realised that if the two succeeded, its bluff that India wanted to dismember Pakistan would be called. It had to strike back and ensure that till it controlled the narrative and power in Pakistan, there would be no movement ahead on the road to peace. The price Sharif paid in 1999, and continues to pay even today should remind all those who feel that things would be different if India had done something, that they inhabit another planet.

I would like to narrate two personal anecdotes that reflect his approach to policy and his caring nature. I was very upset when my wife’s parents had to vacate their rent-controlled house in Allahabad because the new owner was able to manoeuvre the system. Vajpayee’s response was that, personal considerations apart, owners of assets should have control over them and not be constrained by obsolete laws that distort the economy. That was evidence of an understanding of the economy from long years of being in public life. Not surprisingly, Vajpayee was able to move from disinvestment to privatisation; scrap the terrible system of telecom licences and move to a revenue-sharing mode that unleashed the actual revolution in mobile phones post-1999; and give his finance ministers after 2000 latitude to restructure the economy. The grounds of the subsequent economic boom (2003-08) were laid then.

Also read: The life and times of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, former prime minister and admired leader

When it seemed that his government would not come back after it fell in April 1999, he was very worried that my career in the civil services would be affected and approved a foreign posting for me. Despite having never asked me, or any other civil servant, to perform a ‘political’ duty and ensuring that civil service neutrality was not compromised, he was worried that someone could act vindictively. His concern was very touching.

Vajpayee was an uncompromising patriot, with a strong sense of his Hinduness, which was cultural and civilisational. That meant that the primary loyalty of citizens was to the country. Lacking a word, or even concept, for ‘religion’ in any Indian language, he used to publicly say that that State had no role to in any individual’s choice of upasana padhati (forms of worship). There could be no discrimination, or force, in the choice of belief systems. This was real secularism. However, conversions really bothered him, and visiting Gujarat’s tribal-dominated district of Dangs in the wake of alleged attacks on Christians by non-Christian tribals, he suggested a national debate on conversion. The media had grossly exaggerated the scale of violence and damage which were absolutely minor, and had ignored the tensions that arose when tribal customs were denigrated and mocked. Soon after, the heinous murder of the missionary Graham Staines and his sons happened in Odisha. To be fair, the Odisha government acted quickly, apprehended the murderers and successfully prosecuted them in court, but the killing r really shook him and he never went back to the idea of the debate.

Naturally, the debate never took off, and an opportunity to strengthen inter-community relations through dialogue and the clearing of misunderstanding fell by the wayside. In fact, Vajpayee was pilloried for even making the suggestion. Despite no evidence that the RSS, BJP or any related organisation was involved in such acts, many opposition leaders and self-styled public intellectuals saw Vajpayee and his government as a threat to the secular fabric of India. He was charged with subverting the Constitution, of discriminating against the minorities, and of allowing an atmosphere of fear to grow. He would have found it ironic that the same people now cite him as the paragon of tolerance, which he was with or without these dubious certificates.

Mr Vajpayee, you will be missed. But the India of your dreams - economically prosperous with no poverty, with social harmony (Samajik Samrasta), and global political prestige will not only live on but also be achieved. That will be the best tribute to the man.

(Shakti Sinha is director, Nehru Memorial Museum & Library. He served as private secretary to Atal Bihari Vajpayee and was also a joint secretary in Vajpayee’s PMO.)

First Published: Aug 16, 2018 17:34 IST

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