Atal Behari Vajpayee: A Leader par excellence

A personal tribute to a Great Man in adverse circumstances
Venkat Raman
Auckland, August 19, 2018
My first meeting with Atal Behari Vajpayee occurred in 1968 when he called on Chakravarti Rajagopalachari in Kalki Gardens in Kilpauk, Madras.
He had just become President of Jana Sangh, a Hindu, Right-Wing Political Party that succeeded Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an organisation that propagated the concept of ‘Hindu Nation’ for India.
Both were adversaries of the Congress Party, both stood for right-wing, liberal policies and both wanted to oust Congress from power in New Delhi.
“There will come a day when this country will be free from the shackles of the government and there will be clean and honest governance,” he told me just before leaving the Gardens.
Affable and gentle
His manners were so affable and his respect for Rajaji was so genuine that he instantly won my admiration. His politics of ‘Hindutva,’ which later became a moderate mix of secularism and religious tolerance marked a core point of difference.
My second meeting with Mr Vajpayee was on November 23, 1977, eight months after he became India’s External Affairs Minister under the Morarji Desai Government. He cut short an overseas tour to visit Puttaparthi to participate in the 51st Birthday of Satya Sai Baba at his ‘Prasanthi Nilayam’ situated in Whitefield.
“Spirituality purifies politics and helps in good governance. I am sure that the Janata Party (as it was called then) will achieve its objective of unity and clean administration,” he said.
The government fell apart two years later.
My third meeting occurred in 1994 was at the residence of Rajanikanta Verma, India’s Ambassador to Bahrain. Mr Vajpayee was in the Kingdom as a Member of the Standing Committee of External Affairs Ministry to explain India’s nuclear policy.
“India is going through a political test right now,” he told me during my fourth and last meeting in May 1997 when I was in New Delhi accompanying a visiting Minister from Bahrain.
He was referring to the state of flux of the Central Government.
“But our political system has an inbuilt resilience to bounce back.”
Poetry in Chaste Hindi
My fellow journalists used to always tell me it was my loss that I could not understand the chase Hindi that Mr Vajpayee spoke, a comment that General Pervez Musharraf endorsed during an interview given to me in Auckland on June 18, 2005.
“With Mr Vajpayee, you would want to only listen, something that I cannot always do!”
His oratory skills were so impressive even during his early years as a Parliamentarian that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru remarked that he would one day be the Prime Minister of India.
He was the first Prime Minister to address the UN General Assembly in Hindi in September 1977.
The above memories flooded my mind as I learnt of his death while at a meeting at the studio of Radio Taiwan International in Taipei on Thursday, August 16, 2018.
Fluctuating fortunes
Oscillating between victory and defeat was the wont of Mr Vajpayee’s political life.
In the 1957 general elections, his first contest, he lost in Mathura but won in Balrampur.
He and his newly formed Janata Party came to power in 1977 but bowed out after two years.
Indira Gandhi and her Congress Party recaptured the government in 1979 but four years later, she was assassinated by one of her guards. In the wake of that killing, the Congress Party was voted back to power in the 1984 general elections.
His first tenure as Prime Minister, which began on May 16, 1996, ended 13 days later since his newly formed Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) failed to muster the requisite strength.
His second term as Prime Minister was also short-lived. It began on March 19, 1998 but ended on a single vote at a No-Confidence Motion in Lok Sabha on April 17, 1999, orchestrated by Jayalalitha Jayaram, who, as the Leader of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, withdrew support to his government.
Relations with Pakistan
His BJP emerged stronger in the 1999 General Elections and Mr Vajpayee completed a full five-year term, during which he held bilateral talks with Pakistan President Musharraf and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (both failed).
He was conferred India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, by the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee in 2015.
Singular Honour
Current Prime Narendra Modi declared in 2014 that Vajpayee’s birthday, on December 25, would be marked as ‘Good Governance Day.’
That, in my opinion, is the greatest tribute that can be paid to a man who remained single and singular in his political rectitude.
He may have had his prevarications on some national issues but his patriotism and steadfastness were never in question.
Photo Caption:
Atal Behari Vajpayee: Poet, Politician and Prime Minister
(Photo Courtesy: Indian Express Archives)