Atalji sowed seeds of BJP’s inclusive coalition politics, which has stood the test of time and may be crucial for Narendra Modi.
A portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru adorned the landing of the staircase near Gate No. 4 of South Block, which leads to the offices of the External Affairs Minister (EAM) and Foreign Secretary on the first floor. After Congress was ousted in 1977 and the Morarji Desai government, in which Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the EAM took office, the portrait was removed by some overzealous staff. Atalji got the portrait restored. He mentioned this in Parliament and while replying to a question by veteran journalist Kewal Verma in an interview published by the M.J. Akbar-edited Sunday he explained his action. “It is my tribute to Nehru and an assurance to the world that India’s foreign policy is a continuous process.” (Ironically, the Nehru portrait was taken off in the Rajiv Gandhi era by an interior decorator tasked with a makeover of the Foreign Office.)
As Opposition leader in the post Babri-demolition surcharged polity, Atalji readily agreed to Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s suggestion that he lead the Indian delegation to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva in 1995 to blast the Pakistan propaganda about “human rights violations” in Jammu & Kashmir. Later, when he became Prime Minister, he respected Rao’s unfulfilled plans for conducting a nuclear test to put India on the world map as a nuclear power. Atalji’s media advisor, Ashok Tandon has recalled that Narasimha Rao had given a chit of paper to Atalji at his swearing-in, which said, “Now is the time to accomplish my unfinished task”. US pressure had baulked Rao’s effort. According to Tandon, recently declassified US embassy transmissions to Washington have indicated that US had reservations about Atalji emerging as Prime Minister. Atalji did not disappoint those who were so apprehensive: the nuclear blasts in May 1998 went undetected by American satellites. Not only India’s nuclear might, but its strategic management and ability to outwit powers-that-be was showcased by Atalji’s government.
In the run-up to the 1971 war, as Jan Sangh leader in Parliament (which was effectively the position of Leader of Opposition), Atalji led a jail-bharo agitation to press for early action. But once Indira Gandhi liberated Bangladesh he set aside his political differences and hailed her as “Durga”. Only a statesman of classical vintage could have been so accommodating. The biggest tribute which politicians across party lines can pay to Atalji today is to take inspiration from him and make political discourse sans acrimony.
On Pakistan, Atalji had said, “You can choose your friends but you cannot choose your neighbours.” Spirit of accommodation and mutual respect was his paradigm. The Kargil infiltration, which took him by surprise as it came on the heels of his historic bus journey to Lahore, did not make him abusive. He appreciated Premier Nawaz Sharief’s compulsions with the belligerency of the Pakistan army. Later, when the father of that belligerency, Pervez Musharraf, became the head of Pakistan, Atalji tried to find peace by inviting him for a summit to Agra. The mission did not succeed, but it showcased India’s commitment to peace.
Kargil was itself was a case study in astute statecraft. The conflict was limited to pushing back Pakistan to the Line of Control. It was not escalated to other sectors. Indian Air Force was instructed to act, but by remaining within Indian airspace.
Neither on land nor in the air did India violate Pakistani space. And yet, India won the war. The biggest achievement of Atalji’s Kargil handling was that the India-Pakistan hyphenation became a thing of the past. India-China hyphenation was ushered in and this put India on a higher plane in the comity of nations.
During the second Iraq war, pressure was mounting from US that India lend its support to the international effort. This had backers within the Vajpayee Cabinet as well.
The Prime Minister invited the secretaries of CPI and CPM, A.B. Bardhan and Harkishan Singh Surjeet, for tea.
The meeting apparently had no agenda. Surjeet enquired if it was true that Indian troops were headed for the theatre of war. Atalji said that there seemed to be no opposition to this proposal. The Left leaders saw the beacon: an agitation ensued. Respecting this opposition, the move was negated in the Cabinet.
The present NDA slogan of sabka saath sabka vikas was honed in the Atal era. The formation of the 24-party NDA in 1998 saw the coming together of diverse forces spanning Nagaland to Kashmir; Tamil Nadu to Punjab. Atalji did not limit his coalition dharma to attain power. In 2004, after UPA’s Manmohan Singh government was sworn in and the post of Lok Sabha Deputy Speaker, as per custom, was offered to the Opposition, Atalji selected Charanjit Atwal of Akali Dal, which had only three Lok Sabha seats, to give a message to the allies that NDA was active. The decision to hold 2004 elections prematurely, which critics say took the sheen off “Shining India”, was influenced by TDP’s Chandrababu Naidu, who wanted the Lok Sabha polls to be held along with Andhra Pradesh Assembly polls. Atalji sowed the seeds of BJP’s inclusive coalition politics, which has stood the test of time and may be crucial for Narendra Modi in 2019.
Atalji is best remembered for his wit and humour: a rarity in today’s politics. Responding to his bitter critic, Subramanian Swamy, he commented “woh Swamy hain, main sewak hoon”. In the 1960s, once H.K. Dua, then working for UNI, while driving to a Vajpayee press conference saw Atalji standing outside his Ferozeshah Road home waiting for a taxi. Dua stopped his scooter to greet him. Atalji hopped on to the pillion. As the duo arrived at the venue, Atalji said, “You may write tomorrow: H.K.Dua takes Vajpayee for a ride.”
Captains of industry have recalled how Atalji’s bold steps, including disinvestment in PSUs, ushered in reform. Anand Mahindra’s tribute sums up Atal Bihari Vajpayee: “The leadership lesson I learnt from my interactions with him was that no matter how significant your achievements while in office, you ultimately earn the affection of people through your humanity and your humility.”