For the people born in the 1990s, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the first Prime Minister they became aware of, in that limited sense; he was our first Prime Minister. His name, unusual for our generation, became an object of amusement. He certainly didn’t mind it, indeed, the legend goes that in one of his rallies in Bihar, he made a purposeful use of his name, ‘Main ‘Atal’ bhi hun, aur bihari bhi’ (I am unswayed as well as one of your own). For the Longest time, it was Vajpayee’s oratorical push that defined the growth of BJP as a political force. He was refined in his words, poetic in his expression and calm in his demeanour. It was not hard to be overawed by his words; I say that as an earnest viewer of his old speeches. He was fierce, sarcastic, and honest in his speeches, but most importantly, he was aware. If one picks out old profiles done on him by news channels, he can always be seen reading a newspaper along with his morning breakfast. He was aware of the criticism mounted on him, but brushed it aside with a sense of humour and chided the journalists who wrote against him in his unique-playful manner.
He was one of the few early politicians who became aware of the shortcomings of our economic policies. A rare achievement in those heavy days of socialism, he wasn’t ashamed or reluctant to admit the futility of our economic policy thinking. In one of his interviews with Tavleen Singh, he openly admits this policy failure; imagine the present dispensation to make such an admission, the jibes of ‘suit-boot ki Sarkar’ would be abundant. But Vajpayee was too respectable a figure for such mindless nit-picking. This respect was reflexive and spontaneous; it flowed from just having to know him as a person. He was careful of not letting ideology to become the reason of conflict between him and his colleagues of opposition. He called up Dr. Manmohan Singh after reprimanding him for his budget speech under Narashima Rao Government, assuring him that it was entirely political and not personal. He found common cause with committed communists like A.B Bardhan and H.K Surjeet when it came to the question of saving the lives of our soldiers from being sent to Iraq. He can be seen continuously reminding in his speeches, the general consensus of our politics, which seems to be presently under a lot of strain. For him, it was breach of duty to criticise the government of the day on issues of national importance. He appreciated Indira Gandhi for the nuclear test, a fact he reiterated in the parliament when his own government was being chastised for conducting those tests.
In between all of this, his commitment to governance never wavered, for which he willing to take on the disapproval of his ideological peers. He fought hard to retain Jaswant Singh, Brajesh Mishra and Arun Shourie, the people who were seen as outsiders. Their lucid and fluid approach to tackle issues, their urbane outlook and their swift and non-consultative approach to decision making. But he was convinced of their indispensability and ensured their positions are insulated from any kind of interference.
Equally bold was his decision making, be it Pokhran, Kargil, Operation Parakarm or his invitation for Agra Summit. When at the helm, he thought like a Prime Minister and not like a party leader, nobody expected him to engage with Musharraf, but he quieted the criticism with a simple retort, ‘Hum apne dost chun sakte hai but padosi nhi’ (We can choose our friends but no out neighbours). Indeed, we can’t, and towards the end of his regime we saw the most peaceful years near the border and in Kashmir.
One of my fondest memories of him, is when he recalls in the same Tavleen singh interview, how he reprimanded Nehru for building the Ashoka Hotel, reminding him that the job of the Government is to build Hospitals and not Hotels. Nehru had then retorted that the profit of the hotel shall be used to make hospitals, Vajpayee then chuckles and mentions that the Hotel still runs in losses. True to his words, during his tenure, he reduced the number of government-run hotels to 17 from an earlier figure of 34. This was Vajpayee in a nutshell, honesty, clear vision, sound ideas, wit, humour, and a man of action.
Yet, he lost the 2004 general elections, by that time he had grown old, we saw him as a leader who was slow with his words and tired in his oratory. This was the time when media was pacing up and internet was making in-roads. We were left to believe that this was all that was to Vajpayee. It was not, he his takes away with him a breed of statesmen that are rare to come by, large-hearted, shunning pettiness and putting the nation first. One can’t help but mourn at the loss.