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The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: Atal Bihari Vajpayee was PM by day, grandad by night

The best politicians are those who have a life outside of politics. The most compassionate politicians are those who enjoy the love and affection of a family. Atal Bihari Vajpayee had both, writes Vir Sanghvi.

vir sanghvi Updated: Aug 20, 2018 23:23 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
The Taste with Vir Sanghvi,Atal Bihari Vajpayee,Atal Bihari Vajpayee Dead
Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee with his grand-daughter Neha as former president R Venkataraman looks on in New Delhi on 3 February 1996.(HT Archives)

I did not know Atal Bihari Vajpayee well. When I heard other journalists of my generation describe, in the aftermath of Vajpayee’s passing, how he had asked for their advice on how to handle Pakistan, how he outlined, exclusively for them, his plans for the future of the BJP, and so on, I began to feel a little left out.

Vajpayee never once asked me for my opinion on anything. And he never gave me a scoop of any kind.

And yet I did know him. I knew him in different ways. I covered the convention in Bombay that led to the creation of the BJP in 1980 and found much to admire in Vajpayee. By then, he was already a centrist leader, had tried to free himself of the baggage of his RSS background and the new party was meant to be a successor to the collapsing Janata Party (hence the name: Bharatiya Janata Party) and not an updated version of the Jan Sangh.

I wondered then if Vajpayee’s colleagues would allow a centrist party to be created on the ashes of the old Jan Sangh. And as the convention went on, it became clear that Vajpayee’s view of the new party was not shared by many of his colleagues.

When he tried to include a reference to “Gandhian socialism” in a resolution, there was a huge protest led by the Rajmata of Gwalior. I wrote at the time that it was not clear what the former Jan Sanghis were objecting to:“Socialism” or “Gandhian”.

And though I continued to cover Vajpayee – writing after he resigned as Prime Minister of his 13-day-government in 1996, that he would be back as a full-fledged Prime Minister — I doubt if he even noticed anything I wrote.

We met properly only after he became Prime Minister in 1998 and that was by accident. I became friends with his foster daughter Namita and her husband Ranjan so I was often at their house. Naturally, I saw a lot of Vajpayee then but it was always in a friendly context. We hardly ever discussed politics. And though I edited a newspaper in those days, he never treated me a journalist.

The good thing about that was that he really didn’t care what the paper wrote about him or the BJP. The bad thing was that I would leave 3, Race Course Road, having spent several hours with Vajpayee and the family, just as clueless as I had been when I arrived.

In fact, the only journalist interactions we ever had came when Vajpayee travelled abroad . In those days a press party would travel with the Prime Minister. And at least once during every trip Vajpayee would invite a few journalists to go out to a restaurant with him. The dinners were off-the-record but that did not stop us from trying to extract some information from him. But he was too smart for us. He never let a single indiscreet remark pass his lips.

So no, I can’t tell you how Vajpayee viewed India’s relations with Pakistan. Or what his views on economic policy were. I know as much or as little as any other journalist.

But what I think has been missed in many of the (mostly excellent) obituaries and tributes that have appeared over the last few days is a sense of what Vajpayee was like at home.

Most politicians do not have a private life. Their homes are full of courtiers, political managers, favour-seekers and assistants. They have few real friends, just people who are keen on being proximate to power. When the politician does meet up with these ‘friends’, he is always the star of the show, he leads the conversations and everyone else defers to him.

Here’s the thing about Vajpayee: when he was at home, he was never a politician.

By the time I knew him, he was India’s leading statesman, a man with immerse personal charisma. I have seen my share of powerful people up close but I always felt slightly tongue-tied around Vajpayee.

And yet, when he was at home he never once drew attention to himself. He would slip into a room without anyone noticing, would settle down in a chair and quietly drink a cup of soup.

Several minutes later, when he said something and I realised that he was there, I would suddenly feel awestruck . But because Vajpayee was so normal, that sense of awe finally passed. Eventually, I came to treat him (at least, when he was at home) as just the benevolent dad of a friend, not as the statesman he was, when he assumed his official persona.

Most politicians have no conversation other than politics or, more specifically , their own politics. But the private Vajpayee never seemed to want to talk about politics. Instead the family talked about the things that all families talk about: when were they next going to Manali where they had a holiday home? Vajpayee should really use the treadmill a little more. And so on. Then, every now and then, his beloved grand-daughter Niharika would burst into the room, kiss him on the forehead and run off again.

It was as normal a family set-up as you could imagine. Looking back I find it hard to believe that we were in the Prime Minister’s House.

I have always believed that one reason why Vajpayee was able to be his own man when he was Prime Minister, yielding neither to troublesome allies or to the pressure from the sangh, was because he had the advantage of a happy home. When he was off-duty, he was like any other indulgent grand-dad. It did not matter that tensions with Advani were dominating the headlines or that he was struggling to keep the NDA coalition together. At home he shut the politics out and gave himself to his loving family.

Over the years I have seen many PMOs up close. The brightest was Rajiv Gandhi’s. The least impressive was Manmohan Singh’s. But Vajpayee’s PMO was like no other PMO I have ever seen. At times it seemed like an extension of the family . Vajpayee always had brilliant Private Secretaries. Shakti Sinha, Vikram Doraiswamy, Ajay Bisaria and many others. But none of those officers were treated like assistants or secretaries. They shared a warm relationship with the family, were always fed by Namita if they had to work late, doted on Niharika and became friends with Ranjan. (All the friendships still endure, 14 years after the Vajpayee Prime Ministership ended.)

Perhaps I am over-romanticising it, but there was an air of warmth that ran through the PM House and the PMO . It was something I had never seen before in any ruling establishment and never saw again. And that warmth cut across ranks or designations. A Director-level officer would be treated with the same grace and attention as say, a minister in the government of India.

From the outside, this was hard for some people to understand, LK Advani, for instance, took against Brajesh Mishra who ran the PMO. I think Advani had hoped that once the BJP came to office the second most powerful man in India would be a certain, elderly, bald gentleman with years of experience whose opinion Vajpayee respected.

He was right but he had the wrong man in mind. Brajesh became the second most powerful man in India, not Advani. And the Home Minister never quite got over this.

I always found it interesting that the majority of anti-Vajpayee stories focussed on his home. Had the Bhattacharyas got above themselves? Was Namita’s dining table the real power centre in India? Could Ranjan be trusted? Brajesh Mishra was dangerous man, wasn’t he? And so on.

Every one of these stories was fed to the media not from the opposition but from the sangh parivar and its pals.

I got to see the political Vajpayee in action when I was part of the press party that covered his foreign tours. It soon became clear to us in the media that this was a government that did extensive homework. In the First Class section of Air India One, the Foreign Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the concerned territorial sectary and others would strategise extensively. Their ideas would be distilled by Brajesh and then presented to Vajpayee. More often than not, he would reject much of what had been suggested and suggest a new approach.

By the time the flight landed and Vajpayee went off to meet the Prime Minister or President of the country we were visiting , he seemed laid back and relaxed . But, in his own mind, he had worked out every possible subject that could come up in the discussion and had already decided what he would say. He just made it look easy.

Years later, when Tony Blair came for the HT Summit in Delhi, we talked about Vajpayee. “I really like him”, Blair said admiringly. “You know all those long pauses work to his advantage because just as you think, well, he’s not going to object, he suddenly starts speaking and makes it clear that he is not falling for what you are proposing . He has thought it through.”

And of course the trips were fun too. We talk a lot about the journalism of access these days. But the great thing about the Prime Minister’s plane was that any member of the press party could walk into the First Class cabin and chat to Brajesh or the Foreign Minister. It could be a wizened old editor or it could be a young special correspondent; they were all welcome.

Namita Kaul, daughter of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee with her daughter Niharika Bhattacharya during his cremation with full state honour, at Rashtriya Smriti Sthal in New Delhi. (PTI)

When I saw Niharika in tears at the funeral and watched Namita perform the last rites (on TV, I wasn’t there), I was reminded of happier times. For years the family, stung by the personal attacks on them, had kept a low-profile focussing only on looking after Vajpayee. After he fell ill and was confined to his home, the Bhattacharyas spent all of their time caring for him. They did not take a single family holiday together because one of them had to stay to look after Vajpayee at all times. And over the last few months, after Vajpayee was admitted to AIIMS, Ranjan spent every night at the hospital.

It has become fashionable now to believe that our leaders should put politics before family. (If Rahul Gandhi goes to visit his ailing grandmother this is taken as proof that he is “not serious about politics”). I think that is a dangerous view. Down that road lie megalomania and dictatorship.

The best politicians are those who have a life outside of politics. The most compassionate politicians are those who enjoy the love and affection of a family. A politician who is never hugged and never breaks a smile when his granddaughter runs in to the room is a severely limited human being. Because he has never known warmth in his own life, he does not understand what is to be humane..

They are my friends so perhaps I am biased. But I believe that India was lucky to have Vajpayee as Prime Minister. And Vajpayee was lucky to have the love of a family whose warmth gave him the balance he needed in his life.

From their warmth came Vajpayee’s compassion.And from that decency and compassion came Vajpayee’s greatness.

First Published: Aug 20, 2018 16:33 IST