With Vajpayee, curtains for an era that was gentler, but more democratic

Former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee
Was he a private person? Yes, but you would have never known it, judging by the way he lived his life. Was he a public person? Not always: His political moves, especially against his adversaries, were so indirect and secret, and at the same time so brutal, that they rarely recovered.


The 10th prime minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, one of India’s most beloved leaders and most brilliant orators, died today. And, with him ended an era of politics that had Hindu majority assertion as its core.


Born on December 25, 1924, to Krishna Bihari Vajpayee and Krishna Devi, a Brahmin couple in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, Vajpayee studied law at Kanpur’s DAV College. When he enrolled for the course, his father, a school teacher, said he himself wanted to study law as well. The father and his son were admitted to the same class and shared a room in the same hostel. When students started talking about the father-son duo, the two were placed in different sections. But those who studied with him remember evenings spent cooking meals together. It was those days that made Vajpayee a gourmand (he was especially fond of Malpuas, a north Indian sweet) and became ‘head cook’ when he was in Chandigarh jail during the Emergency of 1975.


A political intern of Syama Prasad Mookerjee, Vajpayee became a member of Parliament for the first time in 1957. It was during this time that he actually came face to face with India and made lifetime friends. Vajpayee was at Mookerjee’s side when the latter went on a fast-unto-death in Kashmir in 1953, to protest against the system of carrying a permit for entering the state and the “inferior” treatment of Indian citizens visiting Kashmir, as also the special treatment accorded to Kashmir because it had a Muslim majority. Mookerjee died after weeks of weakness, illness and confinement in jail. Vajpayee wept bitterly at his funeral. It was a defining moment for his politics.


For several years hence, Vajpayee, along with the Jana Sangh and later the Bharatiya Janata Party, stayed on the fringes of politics. In those days, resources were little and the party organisation not so robust. BJP leaders like Vajpayee and Bhairon Singh Shekhawat would contest from two, sometimes three constituencies. They would win some, lose some. No one thought of the BJS or BJP as India’s Hindu Right, not even when the party walked out of the Janata Party, (Vajpayee was foreign minister in the Morarji Desai-led Janata Party government) on the issue of dual membership.


In the 1960s, during his tenure in Delhi as MP, Vajpayee came into contact with B N Kaul, who was a lecturer at Delhi's Ramjas College. When Kaul died, Vajpayee took Kaul’s family under his wing, including his wife Rajrani and daughters. Namita was adopted by Vajpayee as his daughter. His domestic arrangements caused a lot of tittle-tattle. Vajpayee paid no attention.


A matter of enduring mystery was his relationship with L K Advani, who was initially always a little in awe of Vajpayee – and the first to propose his name as prime minister, if the BJP ever came to power. Vajpayee was fond of grand gestures, frequently leaving the fine print to be worked out by others. There was a flash of something when Advani became as famous as, if not more than, Vajpayee: during the rath yatra to build the Ram Temple at Ayodhya. It was Vajpayee who noted with some disapproval that Advani had consented to get himself weighed in blood during the rath yatra. At one stage, he commented, entirely without bitterness: “Dekho, Advaniji ki vaanar sena ja rahi hai”. He wasn’t to be seen anywhere when the Babri Masjid was torn down.


It was this dualism that was at work when the Godhra riots broke out. Much is made of Vajpayee’s ‘raj dharma’ comment when he met Narendra Modi. But they were not equals and Vajpayee never let Modi forget this. Then ‘lent’ to the BJP, Modi, a former Sangh Pracharak, was fond of travel, especially to the US. Once, when Modi had been in the US for nearly four months, and Vajpayee chanced to meet him during his official trip, he asked him politely: ‘swades vapas aane ke vichar hain?’ (are you ever going to return home?) Taken aback, Modi stammered something, possibly the only time in his life he’s had to stammer.


To many of his friends, it was disappointing that he should have appointed his (foster) son-in-law, Ranjan Bhattacharya as an Officer on Special Duty in the Prime Minister’s Office. Although cronyism was not a word in much currency in those days, there was some debate about the wisdom of this appointment. There was a child in Vajpayee always struggling to come out. Outlook magazine spoke to his aide, Shiv Kumar to recall his vacation in the US in 1993, when Vajpayee was only an MP. After the official engagements, the two visited first the Grand Canyon, and then Disneyland. Vajpayee, then 69 years old, was fascinated. He tried out ride after ride with child-like enthusiasm. "We stood in the queues for each and every ride," laughed Shiv Kumar. "I don't think I have ever seen him in such a jolly mood,” the magazine quoted Kumar as saying.


But anyone who thought he was an amiable duffer was badly mistaken. Govindacharya, who tried to imply that it was others – notably the Sangh – who were actually behind Vajpayee’s public persona, found himself thrown out and crushed beyond recognition. Such was Vajpayee’s reach that the RSS found itself either unwilling or unable to come to Govindacharya’s aid. Vajapayee could criticise Modi’s handling of the riots. But when Himachal Pradesh strongman Shanta Kumar tried to publicly agree with Vajpayee, he was dismissed from the central government.


There was no one who tried harder than Vajpayee to repair relations with Pakistan. But it was a time in Pakistan’s history and a time in India’s that simply did not let that happen. Vajpayee and Musharraf came the closest to actually resolving the Kashmir dispute – Khurshid Ahmad Kasuri, Gen Musharraf’s foreign minister and the principal back-channel advisor on the four-point agreement that was started in 2002 and continued till 2007 (when it was finally dropped), has some interesting anecdotes about Vajpayee.


By about 2009, Vajpayee retreated to a world that was entirely his own. The man who held all India spellbound with his oratory and poetry, could not talk, recognised no one and was completely bed-ridden. One of his closest friends and principal secretary in the government, the late Brajesh Mishra once confessed that it was depressing beyond description for him to meet Vajpayee – which he religiously did at least once a month. The two, such inseparable friends, would sit silently in a room. “I would will him to speak. But he didn’t know I was there,” Mishra told this reporter once.


Some of his closest associates are now locked in their own worlds. Vajpayee distance without hesitation from George Fernandes, his defence minister, comrade in arms and once a dear friend, when allegations of corruption in the procurement of coffins surfaced after the Kargil war. Later, however, the Supreme Court did not find even a shred of truth in the allegations. Similarly, Jaswant Singh, the finance, defence and foreign minister whom Vajpayeee counted among his closest three friends – Brajesh Mishra and N M Ghatate being the others – was also dispensed with. With Vajpayee’s passing ends an era that was gentler, and infinitely more democratic.


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