Atal Bihari Vajpayee was one of India’s “top-most parliamentarians”, a “liberal” and “secular” politician, and a Prime Minister who extracted a commitment from Pakistan it would not allow activities against India from its soil, thus giving a weapon in the hands of every subsequent Indian government, former President Pranab Mukherjee has said.Mukherjee also explained the circumstances in which he made a “one-time exception” and went to Vajpayee’s residence to award him the Bharat Ratna in 2015. A visibly sad Mukherjee spoke exclusively to Hindustan Times about Vajpayee, who died on Thursday. The former president is shaken, an aide said, for he has lost four friends in the past fortnight — veteran Congress leader and former PM Indira Gandhi’s aide RK Dhawan, the Communist leader from Bengal and former Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee, former Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi, and Vajpayee. As an old parliamentary debate featuring Vajpayee played on television in the background at his residence on Delhi’s Rajaji Road, causing Mukherjee to pause and smile at familiar faces, the former president said that his memories of Vajpayee went back five decades.He recalled how his dog had once bitten Vajpayee, who was a neighbour. “We used to go together for morning walks. But one 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.” The two families were close, too, with Mukherjee’s wife often cooking fish for Vajpayee, known for his fondness of food. The former president also recalled how Vajpayee’s foster daughter, Namita, used to play in their house. But Mukherjee’s relationship with Vajpayee went beyond personal association to respect. Calling him one of the top-most parliamentarians he had ever have ever come across, Mukherjee said, “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 his foreign policy track record as Prime Minister, Mukherjee highlighted Vajpayee’s engagement with Pakistan. “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.”Given their old association, it was perhaps only apt that Mukherjee would be the one to award Vajpayee a Bharat Ratna, on the recommendation of the Narendra Modi government. But there was a problem. The President did not go out of Rashtrapati Bhawan to give out awards. And Vajpayee would have to be brought on a stretcher. Mukherjee thought about it for a day, and then decided he would make a “one-time exception” and go to Vajpayee residence on Krishna Menon Marg.The next time Mukherjee went to the same house was on August 16, to pay tribute to his old friend, former neighbour, parliamentary rival, and political colleague.