To describe him as a Titan would be an understatement. Apart from all his achievements — politician, Prime Minister, poet, coalition-maker, nation-builder, statesman — Atal Bihari Vajpayee was above all a magnificent human being; romantic at heart with nerves of steel. He towered over his compatriots which is probably why he bore no malice towards anyone and most of them unquestioningly accepted his leadership despite adhering to rival ideologies.
He emerged as a leader in a relatively uncomplicated era, in which politicians were largely principled and respected divergences of opinion. A keen learner who empathised with common people, he grew to deal successfully with most complex domestic and international issues. A liberal in the true sense of the term, Vajpayee was nevertheless a man of utmost conviction and steely resolve evident from his courage to go ahead with the Pokhran nuclear explosions in the face of severe odds. He had the determination to swim against the tide and stuck to his guns when he invited General Pervez Musharraf for talks at Agra, despite the widespread criticism of his decision. Failure never daunted him, neither did success make him delusional with self-praise.
He strived all his life to build an inclusive society, something that even born-again left-wing secularists were forced to admit. A democrat to the core he bore the brunt of Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian streak, suffering many months behind bars during the Emergency. But he rose to his full stature to compliment Mrs Gandhi as a modern-day Durga after the Indian Army vanquished Pakistan and helped liberate the oppressed people of Bangladesh.
Once, till the early seventies, he was lamented as the best Prime Minister India never had. He disproved the doomsayers and triumphantly adorned that chair thrice, beginning 1996, even if for two short spells before he led the 26-party National Democratic Alliance to a full five-year term in office in 1999. His resilience in politics was truly remarkable for he took his party out of its nadir after 1984 when it was down to an abysmal two seats in the Lok Sabha. Despite himself losing his seat in that poll in the wake of the emotional outpouring over Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Atal Bihari led his party to an emphatic nationwide triumph in 12 years.
This he achieved along with his lifelong companion and political cohort, Lal Krishna Advani, whose selfless association with Atalji is a rare instance of political camaraderie. But then, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was respected universally across the political spectrum. Starting from Jawaharlal Nehru, who once praised him for a characteristically moving speech in Parliament by predicting he would become Prime Minister one day, leaders of all shades, even his bitter political critics, heaped praise on his ability to accommodate diverse opinions, despite his background as a Swayamsevak, usually known for their ideological rigidity. So much so that one-time rabid Socialist Trade Union leader George Fernandes became a convert to Atalji’s philosophy of an inclusive India and vocally defended the Pokhran blasts.
A spell-binding orator, the likes of whom India had never seen before and unlikely to see after, Atalji was a master craftsman with words. His love for and mastery over Hindi enabled him to connect with people with incomparable aplomb. His remarkable ability to merge humour with serious content enabled Atalji to get his point across without appearing to pontificate or gnash his teeth. He was never in the good books of many in his own party who disparaged his lifestyle and loathed his eclectic tastes. But Atalji was far beyond their stentorian jealousies; he knew he enjoyed peoples’ love and trust to the full and could afford to ignore recriminations of lesser men.
It will always be a mystery as to why he lost the 2004 elections despite near-unanimous predictions of a BJP landslide. Some blame the party’s over-confidence reflected in the “Shining India” slogan, while others point to predictable anti-incumbency. There is every reason to suggest that the nation regretted its electoral choice for India was bereft of his guiding hand and benign but powerful supervision. But then, history is full of ifs and buts. And the teacher’s son from remote Bateshwar Ghat in Uttar Pradesh was destined to rise to global acclaim and make India proud on the world stage. He accorded the deserved status to his beloved language by speaking at the UN General Assembly in his mother tongue, being the first Indian leader to do so, long before this became fashionable.
Finally, on a personal note, I must recall his opening words at the launch of The Pioneer’s Hindi weekly. “Shri Chandan Mitra aur mitron…” he began, sending the audience into peels of merriment. His words were always telling. But sometimes even his trademark silences had even deeper meaning. Sadly, the country will have to live with his eternal silence from now on. May his soul rest in peace.
Writer: Chandan Mitra
Courtesy: The Pioneer