Vajpayee was a nationalist to the core. He commended Indira Gandhi, comparing her to Goddess Durga when she led India to victory over Pakistan.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee will go down in history as the first man from outside the Congress stream of ideology to make it to the office of the Prime Minister. He held the most prestigious position for six and a half years, spread over three terms in the 11th, 12th and 13th Lok Sabhas. He will also be remembered for his unmatched oratory, razor-edged wit, keen sense of humour, ready repartee and his facility to pursue inclusiveness. A magnetic personality, he was amongst the very few leaders who had roads and parks named after him while he still was in office. His popularity was such that the NDA’s victory in the 1999 elections was so decisive that it returned to power with 303 seats. He was both a Brahmin by birth and deeds, and is often seen as perhaps the last Brahmin Prime Minister of India by his staunch followers.
At times, his flexibility as the leader of the saffron brigade also endeared him to the minorities, and he was often viewed as the moderate face of the Sangh Parivar. Addressed by several names such as Vikas Purush, the 93-year-old former Prime Minister was an equally well versed and perceptive politician, who knew when and how to assert himself.
Vajpayee was fully aware that L.K. Advani, after the latter’s Somnath to Ayodhya Rath Yatra, had acquired a larger than life image within the Bharatiya Janata Party, but made sure that it was he alone who made paramount decisions. By appointing Advani his Deputy PM, he once and for all settled that he was the prima donna leader, and Advani was his number two, as long as they were in government.
Vajpayee had the distinction of being the only Prime Minister who was elected from four different states—Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Delhi to the Lok Sabha in his over 50 years in Parliament. Twice over, he also was the member of the Upper House. It goes without saying that he was a superlative speaker and carried the Sangh’s ideology to the floor of the House as well.
Vajpayee took immense pride in being compared to India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru; though ideologically, the two were poles apart, Nehru had prodded Vajpayee to make his mark in Parliament. In the late 1970s, as Foreign Minister in the Morarji Desai government, he continued with Nehruvian foreign policy due to the fact he held the former PM in very high esteem. Veteran parliamentarians recall that as a young Opposition MP, he would openly defend Nehru, so much so that the Bharatiya Jana Sangh president, Mouli Chander Sharma, who criticised Nehru following the Chinese debacle, had to exit from the party due to Vajpayee’s strong protests. His proximity to Nehru made many of his colleagues suspicious of him and Acharya Kripalani once openly stated in the Central Hall, that he was not only the then Prime Minister’s sycophant, but was supported by him in every manner.
Vajpayee was never ruffled by such insinuations, concentrating solely on his political career. His political forays took root while he was still a student in Gwalior, his hometown. Subsequently, he was associated with the Jana Sangh founder, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, who was not very fluent in Hindi, and was thus assisted by Vajpayee whenever he had to address gatherings in the Hindi heartland. He accompanied him to Kashmir when the Jana Sangh joined the agitation for abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution. After Mukherjee’s demise, Vajpayee entered Parliament in the late 1950s from Balrampur.
He continued to serve the party and after Deen Dayal Upadhyaya’s mysterious assassination in February1968, he took over as the president of the Jana Sangh, following a stand-off with the Jana Sangh co-founder Balraj Madhok. Helped by another senior colleague, Nanaji Deshmukh, Vajpayee was appointed the party president—even though as per the Jana Sangh Constitution, he was by means not eligible. Such was his stranglehold over the party that he managed with ease to discard all those who were not with him. At that juncture, his association with Advani was so invincible that he became his most trusted lieutenant.
An interesting fact is that in the first 15 years of its existence, the Jana Sangh had 10 presidents. However, in the following 30 years, including the period of the BJP, there were only two—Vajpayee and Advani—and thereafter, barring Murli Manohar Joshi, their clones or proxies, till Nitin Gadkari took over.
Vajpayee was a nationalist to the core. He commended Indira Gandhi, comparing her to Goddess Durga when she led India to victory over Pakistan resulting in the creation of Bangladesh. Both of them shared a fine personal rapport till the very end, and Vajpayee frequently referred to her as his sister. However, during the Emergency, he was jailed along with several other Opposition leaders, and later was instrumental in merging the Jana Sangh into the Janata Party.
Subsequently, when that did not work, Vajpayee became the founding president of the BJP in 1980, and revived, to some extent, the Sangh agenda. Vajpayee’s cordial personal relations continued with the Nehru-Gandhis even after Indira’s assassination; when he was gravely ill, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi sent him for treatment to the United States, on government expense. A grateful Vajpayee acknowledged the assistance publicly. In fact, he is understood to have helped young Rahul Gandhi, when he had got into some trouble in the United States, much after Rajiv’s gruesome assassination. It was his way of reciprocating. He continued to have a close equation with the Gandhis, and though he would chide Sonia Gandhi publicly, he never allowed political rivalry to interfere in their personal relations.
He always had an exceptional understanding with Advani, till the latter surpassed him after the Rath Yatra. Thereafter, an element of tension existed, but Advani, till the very end, never challenged Vajpayee, who through little decisions, always made it known, that he was still the chief even though Advani was the party president or Leader of Opposition.
There were moments of weaknesses as well and at a time in the 1990s, when for a brief period he was not a member of either House, he gave vent to his frustration at the residence of a close friend on Pusa Road. As he threatened to quit the party and politics, the friend approached former Delhi Chief Minister Madan Lal Khurana, and Bapu Asa Ram, who both counselled him not to react impulsively. Vajpayee soon came out of his momentary disenchantment and re-entered Parliament with full gusto. He also had excellent relations with his contemporaries and it is said that as Prime Minister he often consulted close friend and predecessor P.V. Narasimha Rao. He and Chandrashekhar were dear friends and often exchanged views on important occasions.
The former Prime Minister was known for his poetic personality and to his credit has several books. He was a wizard of words. He encouraged those with a literary streak to take pen to paper and enjoyed the company of artistic scholars. His dazzling oratory made him an icon in the Sangh Parivar, and many leaders till today try to emulate his style while addressing huge gatherings.
Vajpayee was well known for both his sense of humour and sarcasm. Reporters travelling with him to Trivandrum en route to Kanyakumari for the commencement of Murli Manohar Joshi’s Ekta Yatra, watched in complete awe as he, with great finesse, mocked Vijay Raje Scindia. Espying him seated in the second last row of the aircraft, in the company of several journalists, she invited him to join other VVIPs who were occupying the premier seats in front. He politely declined to do so and without batting an eyelid and with a straight face informed her that he felt secure at the rear of the aircraft as passenger safety had become an issue with Indian Airlines ever since her son, Madhavrao, had taken over as the Aviation Minister.
He was alluding to an incident a few weeks earlier where the door of an Indian Airlines plane had opened mid-air causing anxious moments for the passengers. Vijay Raje beat a hasty retreat knowing that Vajpayee would otherwise spout another of his barbs.
As Prime Minister, Vajpyee’s high point was the nuclear test in May 1998, and his Lahore visit that paved the way for better Indo-Pak relations, though the Kargil conflict soured the initiative. Vajpayee was a reasonably successful Prime Minister and the country witnessed several significant developments during his tenure. Advised by Brajesh Mishra and others, he also played a major role in creating a thaw in the Indo-US relations. Bill Clinton’s 2000 visit, the first by a US President in 22 years, ushered in a new chapter in India’s relations with the US. His Sadak Yojna helped in bringing about greater connectivity in the country and he could have served for a longer period, had it not been for his over-reliance on his aides like Pramod Mahajan, who convinced him to go in for an early election in 2004. He obviously had been taken in by the “India Shining” campaign and the “feel good factor” that was merely a marketing campaign. The rest, of course is history.
Vajpayee had a tendency to vacillate and his ambivalent stance on many subjects was aimed at balancing the differences of opinion within his own party. His critics, however, never forgave him for ignoring the role of his party’s government in Gujarat in the aftermath of the worst communal riots that had occurred in the state. He had made up his mind to replace Narendra Modi after advising him to follow Raj Dharma (tenets of governance), but at the last moment, changed it, following pressure from a strong section during the 2002 Goa conclave of his party. Vajpayee also had an unforgiving side and Govindacharya, the Sangh ideologue, who called him a mukhota (facade), was virtually banished from the party.
Though a bachelor, he lived with his foster family. He was extremely fond of his two foster daughters, one of whom, Ghunu, along with her family, continued to reside with him and affectionately addressed him as Baapji. He loved to be in their company. He would take his annual vacation at his son-in-law, Ranjan Bhattacharya’s house near Kulu for a family get together.
Vajpayee’s loss is a difficult void to fill by his party, and all his friends and foes will always respect him as a great Parliamentarian and statesman.