Atalji's passing has touched more people than any politician's since Nehru

Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. File photo
I got to know Atal Bihari Vajpayee because of the kindness of the lady he spent his life with and whose daughter he considered his foster child, Mrs Kaul. I’m not sure why but she took a shine to me and whenever I wanted an interview she would ensure that Atalji said yes. 

The funny thing is it always seemed to happen the same way. I would ring Raisina Road, where in the early 1990s Atalji lived, and leave repeated messages asking to speak to him. I have no idea what happened but he would rarely, if ever, ring back. Then, after my fifth or sixth attempt, Mrs Kaul would come on the line.

The first time this happened I was rather embarrassed. I thought she had taken the phone to admonish me for my persistence. It certainly was beginning to feel like pestering. So I began by stammering my apologies.

“Oho oho”, she interrupted and shut me up. “You have every right to ring beta and I know what you want. Let me speak to him. Give me a day or so. Ho jaana chahiye.” 

I have to confess I was sceptical. I thought she was fobbing me off. How wrong I was. When I rang back the next morning it was to hear her say, with a chuckle in her voice, that the interview had been fixed. She told me to come that evening and added that Atalji had agreed.

I have no doubt that I owe Mrs Kaul a huge debt of gratitude. “Jab High Command se order aye, how can I say no?”, Atalji would tease. Without her repeated interventions the many interviews I had with Atalji would never have happened. They included the only one he did after the Babri Masjid as well as another exclusive, six months later, when the dismissed BJP governments failed to get re-elected.     

The BJP slogan at the time was ‘Aaj panch pradesh, kal sara desh’. I began my interview by mischievously repeating this to him. Of the five states, the BJP had lost four, and so the prospect of winning the nation had receded very badly.

Atalji laughed. His face broke into a huge smile and his eyes twinkled. I wasn’t sure if it was mischief or glee. He had a very winning appearance when he was smiling. One’s heart automatically warmed to him.

Aaj panch pradesh, kal sara desh”, he repeated and laughed again. He didn’t need to say more. It was clear he was poking fun at his party’s braggadocio. 

Atalji’s strength was his unique capacity for the mot juste. With just a word or two he could deflate pretention, ease tension, bring a smile to a sad heart and capture the mood of a particular moment. Though a slow talker and often uncomfortable in front of television, his speeches were riveting. In 1977, during the election campaign that ended the Emergency, Indira Gandhi got Doordarshan to show Bobby in the belief the crowds would desert the Opposition for a well-loved Bollywood film. How wrong she was. Atalji’s oratory proved more powerful. They came in their hundreds of thousands to hear him, turning their backs on Raj Kapoor’s film.  

As an Opposition leader he was often critical of Nehru and the Congress. No one did more to keep them under scrutiny. But as prime minister he was Nehruvian in his breadth of vision, his punctilious concern for parliamentary etiquette and his considerate treatment of the Gandhi family.

Atalji was also an optimist. Even after losing his own seat in 1984 he was not a defeated man. As prime minister he kept alight the torch of hope in Kashmir and, whether in Lahore or Agra or Islamabad, he was unflinching in his belief that India-Pakistan relations could and must improve.

One might have disagreed with Atalji – particularly after the nuclear tests of 1998, which he insisted were not an act of belligerence but an expression of India’s internal strength – yet it was impossible to dislike him. Even his opponents could not hide their fondness for the man. Fourteen years after losing power, the crowds at AIIMS and the blanket television coverage are testimony to his abiding popularity.

Today’s BJP reveres him. If he was a ‘mukhota’ it was one his party couldn’t do without. His poetry brought music to an otherwise dour lot. But he was not just of another generation but almost of another culture. 

He might not have had the strength to dismiss Narendra Modi in 2002 but his disapproval of the then Gujarat chief minister’s behaviour and response to the killings was no secret. The opposite is true of his relationship with L K Advani. Their differences were few and unimportant; their bond was close and lasting. Indeed, it was because of Advani that Atalji became prime minister for the first time in 1996.

I predict that Atalji’s death will affect all of us deeply. Not since Nehru’s in 1964 has the passing of a politician touched so many people. Not even Rajiv Gandhi’s tragic death at the age of 46. This is because the man and the legend have combined as happens only rarely. Even in Pakistan people will feel a sense of loss. 

What greater tribute could there be to a politician than the fact his opponents and enemies should mourn him alongside his friends and admirers.