By G. L. Batra, ST Guest Columnist, Writer & formerly Addl. Secretary, Indian Parliament and Chairman, Public Service Commission of the Indian State of Haryana
* (the author has worked very closely with Atal Bihari Vajpayee)
Atal Behari Vajpayee is one of the tallest leaders of post-independence India, having also participated in the freedom struggle in his young days. He is popularly known as ‘Vajpayee’ among the masses of India, ‘Atal Bihari Vajpayee’ among the elite and ‘Atalji’ among his senior party members close to him. He emerged as a shining star during the late 50s and early 60s in the Nehru era. He possesses a God-given gift of oratory and has the ability to mesmerize his audience. He has his own style of punctuating his speeches with thoughtful pauses, and emphasizing his points of view which are imbued with wisdom.
In his speeches in Parliament, during the war with China, he caught the attention and eye of the colossal Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and he was impressed by Vajpayee’s oratory, observations and reasoning. Shri Vajpayee had a great regard for Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, and when Pandit ji passed away in 1964, Vajpayee made a moving and heartfelt speech in parliament, showing the great regard and appreciation he held for Pandit ji. His words, coming from the heart of a poet, were truly the right words said in tribute to the right man. After Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s untimely death, Vajpayee took over the reins of the Jan Sangh and rose to great heights. He is an embodiment of the qualities of head and heart, and of profound sagacity. His greatest quality is that he is a humanist at heart and treats everybody equally, which goes to show that by instinct, he is a socialist. He is an ardent advocate of farmers and the poor, irrespective of caste and creed and therefore, many a times, he had to defend himself when members from a section of the house termed him ‘the right man in the wrong party’, referring to the BJP’s ideology of Hindutva. Shri Chandrashekhar, former Prime Minister of India and one of the ‘young turks’ of the Congress party at one time, used to address him as ‘Gurudev’, whenever there was difference of opinion in the House, averring to Vajpayee’s ability to resolve conflict and bring about consensus on issues. He is so magnetic and magnificent and weighty in his speech that every member of the house irrespective of political affiliation, used to make sure to attend the House when he was slated to speak. I have a personal experience that when committee meetings were scheduled, if Vajpayee happened to be amongst the listed Speakers in the House, members used to request that the proceedings be expedited so as to be able to hear Vajpayee deliver his address, particularly when he was leader of Opposition.
A crusader in his party, Vajpayee is seen as being above the ideology of his party. Being an institution in himself, his persona overshadows the reflections of the RSS and BJP. If you have an opportunity to sit with him, you will find that he radiates positive vibrations of attraction and calmness. His cordiality and courteousness to everyone shows his belief in and respect for human dignity. During my term of service in the LS secretariat, I have never heard that any person was hurt by Vajpayee.
It is not that foreign affairs is Vajpayee’s favourite subject, rather, foreign affairs favoured him, after the death of Pandit Nehru. Apart from his stint as Minister of External Affairs in PM Morarji Desai’s regime, he visited the United Nations during the premiership of Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao as well. He was the first Indian to deliver his speech in Hindi to the United Nations General Assembly.
Mr. Vajpayee possesses legendary wit and humor and when tension prevails in the House, he keeps his peace, whether he is in opposition or in ruling party, and has the capability of absorbing and resolving the criticism. It can be safely said that he has never used any unparliamentarily or unbecoming language in his long innings in Parliament. He has the greatest quality of dissolving the tension prevailing the house by his great wit, wisdom and humor.
Shri Vajpayee has always been very particular, as a leader of his party, to enquire and find out, as he used to find out from me during my stint as Additional Secretary, Lok Sabha, about the performance of members of his party in the various committees of Parliament. He always advised me to tell them to adhere to the prestige of the Chair and maintain the sanctity of rules.
Mr. Vajpayee has a tremendous personality, and an imposing intellect. When I read the book ‘my four decades in Parliament’, I failed to appreciate it, because in my opinion, Mr. Vajpayee doesn’t need to say anything about his performance in the House, when the qualities of hard work and articulation of speech are imbued in him. A persona like him does not require to prove or justify his performance in the House. Mr. Vajpayee’s contributions to both Houses of Parliament are a treasure which will be valued. It was imminent to Jawaharlal Nehru in 1962 itself that this (then) young man was bound to rise to great heights and he did rise, and it is truly justified to call him the first leader of the country today. People said ‘who after Pt. Nehru?”, and now we ask, “who after Vajpayee?”.
Mr. Vajpayee is a very emotional person, as was Jawaharlal Nehru. Jawaharlal Nehru believed bona fide in the Chinese, and they back-stabbed him by aggressing on India in 1962. Mr. Vajpayee too believed in the Pakistani regime and reached out to them in the spirit of friendship, but after only a few days, he was betrayed by the Kargil war, which took him by surprise and must definitely have hurt him. Though his competency is not in doubt, but when the heart prevails over the mind, mistakes are bound to occur.
The hijacking of the Indian Airlines plane, IC 814, by Jehadi fundamentalists too was an emotional issue and he was swayed by the sentiment prevailing then, to hand over three recognized fanatic terrorists, including Masood Azhar and Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, in exchange of the Indian citizens held captive in the hijacked plane. Vajpayee was forced to depute his foreign minister, Shri Jaswant Singh, to take the terrorists to Afghanistan, where the plane was held by the hijackers. This incident was a trap schemed up by the Taliban with the hijackers and the Indian government could not see through the web of deceit. The hijacking, and the subsequent release of the terrorists will remain a matter of remorse for all Indians. To be fair, however, it must be acknowledged that it is difficult to take bold decisions in situations like this, when the pressure from all quarters is intense.
Mr. Vajpayee is a man who believes in compromise and consensus, which now-a-days is the other name of politics. He exemplified this during his premiership by carrying almost thirteen parties along with him and successfully completed his term as PM. He is an expert on almost every subject of national interest and participates in the proceedings of the House during debates on all issues. Through his speeches, he gives genuine, constructive and effective suggestions and criticisms.
Dissent within any political party is the essence of democracy. Though it may be denied by them, there is dissent within the BJP too. Mr. Vajpayee however has always shown great tolerance and patience and the ability to take the middle path after listening to all points of view. His dominating personality and wise words ultimately prevail and he counts as number one in his party even at his age.
During his regime as prime-minister, he had some understandable limitations in the choice of his ministers. Inspite of a profusion of parties in the coalition which he headed, it can be safely said that he succeeded in carrying all of them along to a successful full term. He continued the policies of liberalisation initiated by Mr. Narasimha Rao. With benefit of hindsight, it would have been most appropriate that Vajpayee had retained the External Affairs portfolio with himself.
In 1992, Mr. Vajpayee was decorated with the Padma Vibhushan by the President of India, and in 1994, he received the ‘best parliamentarian’ award instituted in the memory of Pt. Gobind Ballabh Pant.
Diplomacy is the essence of politics and Vajpayee is a diplomat par excellence, he has the skill to defuse any tense situation by his speeches or words of which are full of astuteness and reflect his sound acumen.