Neither Nehru, nor himself, nor any one party – Atal Bihari Vajpayee put India first
The former Prime Minister was truly a Bharat Ratna for he emphasised Bharat was above personal, political or petty differences. The story of India was for everyone. And he wrote many of its best lines.
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It was a cold evening in the winter of 1977. Indira Gandhi had announced elections and scores of Opposition leaders, put behind bars during the Emergency, had been released. They were now holding a rally at the Ram Lila Maidan in the national capital.
Orator par excellence: Atal Bihari Vajpayee mesmerised crowds through the ages. (Source: Archives)
Veteran journalist Tavleen Singh in her book, Durbar, describes in detail the atmosphere that day.
Long, boring speeches started being made around 6pm that January evening. Even as it rained, adding to the chill in the air, the crowd did not move — it waited because the best speaker had yet not spoken. It was well past 9.30pm when Atal Bihari Vajpayee rose to speak. Amid slogans of “Indira Gandhi murdabad! Atal Bihari zindabad”, he said:
- Baad muddat ke mile hain deewane.
- Kehne sunne ko bahut hain afsane.
- Khuli hawa main zara saans to le lein,
- Kab tak rahegi aazadi, kaun jaane.
Vajpayee spoke interspersing the lines with his classic pauses, throwing the crowd into hysteria because he had managed to eloquently sum up the essence of the Emergency for the people.
That evening, he also went on to underline what freedom means – the fundamental right to disagree with those who rule us.
A right he ensured he did not deny anyone when he got his own chance to rule.
As the Janata Party won the 1977 election, capitalising on the anger against the Indira Gandhi administration for keeping Indian democracy under suspension for well over two years, Vajpayee became external affairs minister under the new dispensation.
Carrying none of the bitterness of his personal incarceration, he ensured Nehru’s photo was put back up in the corridors of South Block after it was removed as the Congress was no longer in power
When Nehru died on May 27, 1964, having failed to come to terms with China’s backstabbing by declaring war against India in 1962, Vajpayee wrote, “Bharat Mata is stricken with grief today — she has lost her favourite prince. Humanity is sad today — it has lost its devotee. Peace is restless today — its protector is no more. The down-trodden have lost their refuge.”
While Vajpayee held deep respect for Nehru, he was unsparing in his criticism of the leader over the death in custody of his mentor, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, and also for a lack of preparedness in 1962, when the Chinese attacked India.
His ability to be political without being personal continued. He showered praise lavishly on Indira Gandhi as well while he continued to be a tough political adversary. When Bangladesh was created in 1971, Vajpayee described Indira Gandhi as "Abhinav Chandi Durga" for defeating Pakistan in the war. A statement that went on to draw for him acerbic personal criticism. But he later credited Rajiv Gandhi for saving his life by arranging a trip for him to the US for a kidney ailment treatment.
Vajpayee belonged to a league of leaders who put national interest before their personal political ambitions.
It is for this reason that political barriers have been broken in showering praises on Vajpayee upon his demise.
He was the first ever, and so far, the only non-Congress leader to complete a full term in office as Prime Minister in a coalition government. He succeeded at the attempt because he truly had no lust for power. For Vajpayee, it was always India first.
In the 1990s, when coalition politics was the only option for parties across the political spectrum, the BJP was quick to realise that Vajpayee, and not LK Advani, was the leader who could be the political glue to stitch together such an alliance.
But when Vajpayee realised in 2003 that support for him within his own party to continue in the Prime Minister’s chair was waning, he was quick to clear the road for Advani to take the party ahead.
Vajpayee was on a trip abroad when the-then BJP president, now the country’s Vice-President, M Venkaiah Naidu, made a rather controversial remark, reportedly saying that in the next election (slated for 2004), the party intended to project both leaders, Advani and Vajpayee, with equal prominence. BJP leaders had described the duo in many ways – Ram and Lakshman, a new-age Nehru and Patel, Vikas Purush (development man) and Loh Purush (iron man), etc. But Naidu’s statement hurt Vajpayee. Most other politicians would have opted for an outright showdown.
Upon his return to the country, amid a small gathering of party members, Vajpayee took to the stage and declared that though he was neither ‘tired’, nor ‘retired’, the BJP would be led to victory in the next general election under the leadership of Advani.
- Na tire, na retire
- Advaniji ke netrityva main,
- Vijay ki ore prasthan
The audience was left stunned.
As an upshot for Vajpayee, many rushed to express confidence in his leadership. Vajpayee had taken the high moral ground. And he had not made it personal.
Vajpayee, who vacillated between soft Hindutva and libertarianism, had chosen his words with cold precision that day. While he aimed to disarm Naidu, the use of 'tired' and 'retired' was again directed towards one of his own party detractors – Kalyan Singh. Singh had used the words to describe Vajpayee and his aide, principal secretary Brajesh Mishra, after Vajpayee ensured Singh was thrown out of the party.
Interestingly, Vajpayee also ensured that former BJP general secretary Govindacharya was thrown into the political wilderness after he described the former as a "mukhauta" (mask), while idolising Advani as the "real" leader.
When he visited Gujarat after the 2002 riots, he reminded Prime Minister (then chief minister) Narendra Modi of 'raj dharma' in full public and media presence. “Raja ke liye, shashak ke liye praja praja mai bhed nahi ho sakta (a king, a ruler cannot discriminate among his own people),” Vajpayee told Modi, seated by his side, looking deeply embarrassed, interjecting to say, “Hum bhi wahi kar rahe hain, janab (I am also doing the same, sir).”
But Vajpayee had given his own chief minister a public dressing down.
It is said by many that Vajpayee apparently wanted Modi to resign, but the cadre was backing him with unprecedented zeal. Party leaders Pramod Mahajan and Arun Jaitley, at the BJP National Executive held shortly afterwards, ensured Modi did not have to step down. Vajpayee, on his part, blinked.
In the political acrimony that has silenced reasoning today, political leaders choose to either justify the violence happening under their watch or go mum about it. But not Vajpayee.
Because it was nation first for Vajpayee, even if it meant embracing critics and embarrassing his own partymen.
- Hey prabhu!
- Mujhe itni uchai mat dena,
- Gairon ko gale na laga sakun,
- Itni rukhai mat dena
If there was one leader even the most alienated Kashmiris believed in, it was Vajpayee.
Constituents of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) too are missing Vajpayee because it was he whom they believe could take everyone along.
At the recent launch of Newsman: Tracking India in the Modi Era, a book written by journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, Akali Dal leader and son of former Prime Minister Naresh Gujral emphasised the NDA needed a Vajpayee touch. Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut had also underlined how the NDA needed a leader like Vajpayee going ahead in 2019.
How did Vajpayee manage to be so easily acceptable to everyone? PM Modi is referring to him as “Mere Atal ji”, but beyond the RSS and BJP lines too, those words have resonance today.
मेरे अटल जी https://t.co/rQPaxijz1P— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) August 17, 2018
The answer lies in his own poetry:
- Satta ka khel to chalega,
- Sarkare aayegi... jaayegi…
- Partiya banegi... bigadegi…
- Magar ye desh rahna chahiye,
- Is desh ka loktantra amar rahna chahiye…
Vajpayee ensured the idea of India that is so bitterly contested today stayed strong. He worked for the country. Personal losses did not leave him bitter. He laughed off electoral debacles.
Vajpayee understood India's story cannot be one party’s or an individual’s legacy. For him, this story needed to include every individual contribution – Nehru and Indira included - not obliterating anyone for political expediency.
That is Vajpayee’s legacy – one that will ensure this nation never forgets him.