India’s emergence as a global economic giant is something that Vajpayee would have loved to see, having dedicated his life to it.
Nature and fate can be very cruel. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a communicator par excellence, had to spend almost the last decade of his life in virtual silence.
But what a life it has been: from the mud floor of the house he was born in to becoming the face of the country he loved more than anything. The country loved him as much, even those citizens who did not vote for him. I recall the thousands of doting Moplah women who lined the streets to see him as he drove by from Kozhikode to Malappuram.
Once in Parliament, when he announced that he would never contest again, veteran Congress leader P. Shiv Shankar got up from his seat in shock and said: “Atalji, aap kya bol rahen hain? (Atalji, what are you saying?)”
Despite his popularity and wide appeal, his politics was not of the weekly rating or plebiscitary variety. I remember after the Kargil War he told Yashwant Sinha, the finance minister at that time, to go ahead and take tough decisions, if required, to pay for the war. He was confident that people would understand.
The conventional image of Vajpayee was that of a conciliator. But that’s not the full picture. On key issues, he was a tough decision-maker and once he decided something, he never looked back. He had an infinite capacity to listen and build a consensus. However, if somebody crossed him politically or played dirty, Vajpayee was tough-as-nails and uncompromising.
The key part of his statesmanship was the empathy factor. When the ministry of external affairs and others advised him to put greater pressure on Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, his reply was classic: “Put yourself in Nawaz Sharif’s shoes”. This was more than empathy; it was his distilled wisdom from 40 years of observing strategic affairs and a habit of not rushing to conclusions.
He was also very generous. When Mulayam Singh Yadav as the defence minister made a statement in the Lok Sabha about the successful conclusion of the Sukhoi deal, he got up, broke parliamentary tradition and praised the government for concluding the deal in the national interest. This praise took not just the members but also the minister by surprise. A senior BJP parliamentarian was surprised and asked me, “Why did Atalji have to praise Mulayam Singh Yadav’s actions?” The answer, I guess, was that some things were above party politics.
Vajpayee and Nehru
He was only in his early thirties when he entered Parliament in 1957, elected from Balrampur. He was always a keen participant in debates about foreign policy. Jawaharlal Nehru, who remained his own foreign minister throughout his tenure, complimented Vajpayee on his foreign policy speech.
There is even an apocryphal story that Nehru had predicted Vajpayee would one day become the Prime Minister. But all good stories need a myth or two to sustain interest. In fact, Vajpayee opposed Nehru’s China policy strongly. His close friend and chronicler N.M. (‘Appa’) Ghatate published a book on Vajpayee’s speeches opposing Nehru on the Tibet issue. But when Nehru died, he read out a very moving tribute to him. Their world view of India was completely different, but he obviously appreciated Nehru’s connect with the people and his larger-than-life dominance over Indian politics.
Quick to recognise the importance of roads as the minimum requirement for solid economic development and for nation-building, Vajpayee launched the Golden Quadrilateral and the North-South, East-West national highway development programme. Later, the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana was added to it so that rural areas do not get left out of the connectivity network. Today, we take these roads and world-class highways for granted. This was unimaginable before 1998.
Going to UN after nuclear test
The attainment of India’s nuclear status was something that he had long dreamt of and fulfilled. While his mature leadership during the Kargil War ensured the de-hyphenation with Pakistan, I remember that crucial trip to the United Nations in September 1998. India was under sanctions, and although contact was established with the Clinton administration courtesy the Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott dialogue, the need to send a public message to the US was important. We were up throughout the 16-hour journey to New York, working on his speeches for the United Nations and the Asia Society where the American big-wigs like Kissinger would be present.
It was in a little cubicle that Air India had created just outside the PM’s New York hotel room where a computer and printer had been installed that the first drafts were readied and polished. There were multiple drafts with conflicting styles and messages. Ultimately, they were massaged into a coherent whole, and the phrase ‘natural allies’ made its entry into the Indo-US lexicon. An idea whose time had come, even if decades of work still lay ahead. That is Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s ultimate legacy in his favourite field of foreign relations.
India’s emergence as a global economic giant is something that he would very much have liked to see, having dedicated his life to it.
Shakti Sinha is Director, Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, New Delhi. He was private secretary to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee between 1996 and 1999.