There is all-round praise about Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s humane approach to life, which earned him the distinction of Ajatshatru (one who has no enemies). There is no doubt that he was the Bhishma Pitamah of Indian politics, as the former Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh described him, and that he was a legendary statesman. We generally talk about Vajpayee’s cultural moderation, liberalism and political reasonableness that helped him become an acceptable face to lead an alliance of over 20 parties in government. But he also faced several challenges in his long political career. For instance, when Vajpayee became External Affairs Minister in 1977 in the Morarji Desai-led Janata Party government, the editor of the then famous tabloid Blitz did a cover story on the “American dagger” behind Vajpayee’s character assassination.
It was an open secret that Morarji Desai didn’t want the External Affairs portfolio to be allotted to Vajpayee. The former Jana Sangh, which merged its identity with the Janata Party, was allotted three Cabinet ranks. Apart from Vajpayee, the other two went to L.K. Advani and Nanaji Deshmukh. Nanaji however backed out in favour of some other relatively little known leader from Madhya Pradesh. The former Jana Sangh put its foot down and Vajpayee got External Affairs which was his first choice. But Morarji didn’t reconcile to that and resorted to what the Blitz then described as “PM Desai’s dirty tricks”. What followed is history as Vajpayee had to face an unending onslaught on his personal life. But he never bothered and continued his march to glory. Morarji also played young Subramanian Swamy against Vajpayee. When Swamy asked Morarji as to how his name was missing from the Cabinet list, Morarji told him that Vajpayee was opposed to his name.
That was one of the reasons why Swamy too turned against Vajpayee and indulged in the vilification campaign against his own leader, who had penned a poem on Swamy’s great escape from Parliament House during Emergency.
Many in the Congress party also unleashed a sinister campaign of character assassination against Vajpayee including allegations that he never took part in the 1942 Quit India Movement and that he had apologised to the British government when arrested as a student.
Morarji was such a nosy Prime Minister that he kept a tab on his Cabinet colleagues and also on the then Janata Party president Chandrashekhar.
When Morarji as PM went on an official visit to Moscow, the first thing he enquired from our ambassador I.K. Gujral was that where all Foreign Minister Vajpayee went and who all he met prior to this visit.
The then Foreign Secretary Jagat Mehta played an important role in Vajpayee’s success as a Foreign Minister making him a well known figure across the globe.
Morarji Desai was so envious of Vajpayee’s growing clout that he got an order issued to Jagat Mehta that in all matters of diplomatic relations the image of Prime Minister too should be adequately promoted.
Later, as the Leader of the Opposition as well as during his stints as Prime Minister and also during election campaigns, Vajpayee had to face a barrage of allegations relating to his personal life.
But every time Vajpayee emerged unscathed and his popularity grew and finally, I am told, subject to correction, Congress president Sonia Gandhi personally intervened to put a permanent stop to making any personal attacks on Vajpayee in any Congress election campaign.
Apparently, there was a realisation that any personal attacks on Vajpayee had proved to be counter-productive.
Ashok Tandon was media advisor to Atal Bihari Vajpayee when gthe latter was Prime Minister.