Why Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the BJP’s Pandit Nehru: Notes from a reporter’s diary
India’s former prime minister and one of the country’s most-loved and respected leaders, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, died on Thursday evening.india Updated: Aug 17, 2018 16:04 IST
A Ratna of Bharat is no more. I have fond personal and professional memories of Atal Bihari Vajpayee that persuaded me to believe in him on an as-is-where-is basis, if not in the ideology with which he was associated all his life. Here are notes from a reporter’s diary in remembrance, and respect.
“Kya chal raha hai, partner?” What’s up, asked Atal ji, seeking me out of a crowd of journalists at Lahore’s Minar-e-Pakistan on February 21, 1999. He was aware of my stint earlier as HT’s Pakistan correspondent, and was perhaps keen to know how his State visit, the last since by an Indian prime minister, was playing out in that country.
In the winter of 1999, I wasn’t quite sure until Vajpayee’s helicopter landed at Iqbal Park that the PM from a party that spoke of “akhand bharat” would visit the memorial to the Muslim League’s 1940 call for a separate homeland. “It’s a miracle, sir,” I gushed. “If that’s the message toh zara tafseel sey kahen (tell it in some detail). Pakistanis ask what purpose will be served by talking to people who don’t recognise their wajood (existence) as a sovereign country.”
On the plush lawns of the West Punjab governor’s residence that evening, the BJP veteran surpassed himself -- as an orator and a statesman. To me, he shone like India’s Ratna that day itself.
The Punjabi elite at the civic reception sat bedazzled as Vajpayee began his speech in what Mahatma Gandhi used to call Hindustani, with the disclosure that his visit to the Minar was against the advice of a party colleague who had accompanied him on the historic bus ride to Lahore the previous day. “He told me I shouldn’t go to Minar-e-Pakistan because that’ll put my stamp on this country. I said Pakistan does not need my stamp of approval. It has a valid stamp of its own: Pakistan ki apni mohar hai jo chal rahi hai (Pakistan has its own stamp).”
‘Vajpayee’s Pakistan diplomacy was brave at the time’: HT Conversations
The right wing, anti-India Jamaat-e-Islami later had the Minar washed with rosewater in what it termed the memorial’s ‘ablution’ after Vajpayee set foot there. But that did not erase from the popular mind the impression the Indian leader made by his bold acceptance of the reality of Pakistan. It was a paradigm shift bigger than LK Advani’s June 2005 endorsement during a visit to Karachi, of Jinnah’s ‘secular’ beliefs that the Sangh Parivar could not bring itself around to agreeing with.
Pakistan betrayed the Lahore peace process in Kargil. But Vajpayee persisted with his hand of friendship, inviting Pervez Musharraf to Agra in 2001. It wasn’t for want of his efforts that the summit ended on a lunatic note. The madness flowed from Musharraf’s megalomania, and to some extent, the BJP’s internal contradictions.
What followed was a near-war scenario after the December 2001 terrorist attack on India’s Parliament. Two years down the line, a high-profile visit to Pakistan by Indian parliamentarians afforded another opening for peace. Vajpayee seized it with alacrity, making Musharraf commit in January 2004 to non-use of his country’s territory by terrorists perpetuating violence against India. Mumbai’s 26/11 attacks made a mockery of the Pakistani promise. But history must judge Vajpayee by what he achieved against the odds.
I once asked a senior BJP leader to recall one action or policy for which posterity should remember Vajpayee. He agreed wholeheartedly when reminded of his leader’s role in ensuring the secular character of the 1984 vote after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. That was the time when the Congress cared little for Sikh support. It was left to Vajpayee, then president of the BJP, to reach out to the alienated community.
And he did so admirably, denouncing at public rallies the mayhem in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s murder by two of her Sikh security guards.
On the centenary of Nehru in 1989, I worked on an article on the first Prime Minister based on conversations with people who had known him before the Independence and had worked with him after India became a free country. Among those with whom I spoke was Vimla Sindhi, caretaker of Teen Murti House where Nehru lived as PM. I asked her, who, among the departed leader’s political opponents she found the most distraught after his demise. “Vajpayee,” she instantly replied: “He was inconsolable…was weeping like a child.”
As PM, Vajpayee recalled in a speech in Parliament how he got restored in South Block’s corridor a portrait of Nehru he would notice while walking in, during his years in the Opposition. “I just had to ask as who removed it and the portrait was back at the assigned place,” the BJP veteran remarked. He never shied of wearing as a badge his admiration of Nehru -- and the latter’s fondness of him as a young leader who could be PM one day.
In 1990, Advani launched his Rath Yatra over the Ayodhya temple-mosque dispute. That prompted the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangth (RSS) top brass to ask Vajpayee, then a forlorn, marginalised figure in the BJP,, to lead the party in Parliament in Advani’s place. He refused. I met him thereafter at his Raisina Road bungalow. The conversation was interrupted by his daughter, who wanted him over for lunch. But a tearful Vajpayee said it all in one line: “How can I defend in the House an issue (Advani’s yatra) on which I have basic disagreement.”
HT published at the time a report I had filed based on that exclusive conversation.
The Bharat Ratna conferred on Vajpayee in 2015 was richly deserved. He was the BJP’s Nehru -- acceptable to even those who disagreed with his party, or his extended political family.
First Published: Aug 17, 2018 08:07 IST