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Atal Bihari Vajpayee: An appreciation

Is he a private person? Yes, but you would never know, judging by the way he’s lived his life. Is he a public person? Not always: his political moves, especially against his adversaries, were so indirect and secret but so brutal that they rarely recovered.

The govt on Wednesday declared that the 10th Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee,will be awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour.

Born on December 25, 1924 at Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh to a Brahmin family, Krishna Bihari Vajpayee and Krishna Devi, Vajpayee studied law at Kanpur’s DAV College. When Vajpayee enrolled for the course, his father, a teacher in a school, said he wanted to study law as well. Father and son were admitted to the same class and shared a room in the same hostel. When students started talking about the father-son duo, the two were placed in different sections. But those who studied with him remember evenings spent cooking meals together. It was those days that made Vajpayee a gourmand (he was especially fond of Malpuas, a north Indian sweet) and became ‘head cook’’ when he was in Chandigarh jail during the emergency.

Vajpayee was a political íntern’ of Syamaprasad Mookerjee and became a Member of Parliament for the first time in 1957. It was during this time that he actually came face to face with India and made lifetime friends. Vajpayee was at Mookerjee’s side when he went on a fast-unto-death in Kashmir in 1953, to protest against the system of carrying a permit for entering the state and the “inferior” treatment of Indian citizens visiting Kashmir, as also the special treatment accorded to Kashmir because it had a Muslim majority. Mookerjee died after weeks of weakness, illness and confinement in jail. Vajpayee wept bitterly at his funeral. It was a defining moment for his politics.

For several decades, Vajpayee, along with the Jana Sangh and later, the Bharatiya Janata Party, stayed on the fringes of politics. In those days, because resources were few and the party organization not so robust, BJP leaders like Vajpayee and Bhairon Singh Shekhawat would contest from two and three constituencies. They would win some, lose some. No one thought of the BJS or BJP as India’s Hindu Right, not even when the party walked out of the Janata Party government,(where Vajpayee was foreign minister) on the issue of dual membership.

In the 1960s, during his tenure in Delhi as MP, Vajpayee came into contact with BN Kaul who was a lecturer at Delhi’s Ramjas   College. When Kaul died, Vajpayee took Kaul’s family under his wing, including his wife Rajrani and daughters. Namita was adopted by Vajpayee as his daughter. His domestic arrangements caused a lot of tittle-tattle. Vajpayee paid no attention.

A matter of enduring mystery was his relationship with LK Advani, who was initially always a little in awe of Vajpayee – and the first to propose his name as Prime Minister, if the BJP ever came to power. Vajpayee was fond of grand gestures, frequently leaving the fine  print to be worked out by others. There was a flash of something when Advani became as famous, if not more, than Vajpayee: during the rath yatra to build the Ram Temple. It was Vajpayee who noted with some disapproval that Advani had consented to get himself weighed in blood during the Rathyatra. At one stage, he commented, entirely without bitterness: “dekho, Advaniji ki vaanar sena ja rahi hai”. He wasn’t to be seen anywhere when the Babri Masjid was brought down.
It was this dualism that was at work when the Godhra riots broke out. Much is made of Vajpayee’s ‘raj dharma’ comment when he met Narendra Modi. But they were not equals and Vajpayee never let Modi forget this. 

To many of his friends, it was disappointing that he should have appointed his (foster) son in law, Ranjan Bhattacharya as an Officer on Special Duty (OSD) in the PM’s Office (PMO). Although çroneyism was not a word in much currency in those days, there was some debate about the wisdom of this appointment. 

There was a child in Vajpayee always struggling to come out. Outlook magazine spoke to his aide, Shiv Kumar to recall his vacation in the US in 1993, when Vajpayee was only an MP. After the official engagements, the  two  visited first  the Grand Canyon, and then Disneyland. Vajpayee, then  69 years  old,  was fascinated.  He tried out ride after ride  with child-like  enthusiasm. “We stood in the queues for each and  every ride,” laughs Shiv Kumar. “I don’t think I have ever seen him  in such a jolly mood,” the magazine wrote.

But anyone who thought he was an amiable duffer was badly mistaken. Govindacharya, who tried to imply that it was others – notably the Sangh – who were actually behind Vajpayee’s public persona, found himself thrown out and crushed beyond recognition. Such was Vajpayee’s reach that the RSS found itself either unwilling or unable to come to Govindacharya’s aid. Vajapayee could criticize Modi’s  handling of the riots. But when Himachal Pradesh strongman, Shanta Kumar tried to publicly agree with Vajpayee he was sacked from the central government.

The Bharat Ratna should be interpreted as an award  for his efforts to repair relations with Pakistan. There was no one who tried harder. But it was a time in Pakistan’s history and a time in India’s that simply did not let it happen. Vajpayee and Musharraf came the closest to actually resolving the Kashmir dispute – Khurshid Ahmad Kasuri, Gen Musharraf’s foreign minister and the principal back channel advisor on the four point agreement that was started in 2002 and continued till 2007 (when it was finally dropped), has some interesting anecdotes about Vajpayee in his book that will come out next year.

Vajpayee has now retreated to a world that is entirely his own. He cannot talk, recognizes no one and is bed ridden. And yet, no one will disagree about the Bharat Ratna. It’s  just frustrating that we will never get to know the real Atal Bihari Vajpayee. 


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