Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee is no more. I speak of him now not as a politician of the BJP, but a statesman who was a model public figure.
‘Aura’ is a word I rarely use, ‘transcendental aura’, even more scarcely, but for Mr Vajpayee that is an apt one. Every single time I watched his speeches, it made me aware of how special this man is. His aura shone through the screen. ‘A masterful orator’ is what is usually said to describe him, but, I was also enamoured by the child-like gleefulness of his delivery. The smile with which he eviscerated accusations. His witty repartee, in this age of social-media, would be a gold mine. What does he mean to someone who was not even 15 when he retired from active politics? To a generation that has not really ‘lived’ through his Government? Precedent. A #101 on how to conduct yourself. For me, that was adopting the manner of being assertive yet approachable based on a foundation of strong principles and sprinkled with the right dose of theatricality. This precedent is not restricted to people who are aspirants for a role in public life, but, is also extendable to be a precedent on how to build and lead an organisation. An organisation that seems electorally unstoppable hitherto was reduced to 2 seats in 1984, where Mr Vajpayee himself lost his seat. He led the effort to build that party along with Mr. Advani, which they managed to do together. He serves as a precedent to appreciate the gift of laughter in a space which was sometimes full of sanctimoniousness and pseudo-self righteousness. He was a precedent on reaching across the aisle in times of conflict, with a famous friendship with his predecessor Mr PV Narasimha Rao. A precedent in not reducing to the level of pettiness during civil discourse. There are enough anecdotes on his magnanimous nature, especially to people from the opposite aisle but the real test of his statesmanship, for me, was to turn that smile into a steely frown when faced with tough decisions. The nuclear tests, not bowing to public outcry over disinvestment of PSEs and of course, Kargil are stellar examples. I do not want to comment over whether I liked those decisions or not as I do not wish to be political in this post, but rather, wish to take the position of an ordinary citizen professing his admiration for a singular person’s personal qualities.
One good thing coming out of the horrible and untimely death of Mr Syama Prasad Mookerjee, when he went to Kashmir to protest the permit quota system of the Government, was when he told his young secretary – “tell everyone where I am and what this Government is doing”. That young secretary did so and more. That event gave us Mr Vajpayee. He continued the work of Mr Mookerjee and got himself elected to Parliament. He impressed our first Prime Minister over there enough to be predicted to become a Prime Minister himself one day. I seldom want to romanticise people, especially those who I did not know personally, however, it seems as though it was inevitable, fateful and not hypothetical that he would reach that post. He impressed as the External Affairs Minister. The first person to make a speech in Hindi at the UN. His ranking of speeches would give anyone a headache. His speech during the 1962 war is almost an urban legend in terms of how good it was. The best speeches of his, in my opinion, were reserved for his ‘enemies’. He never let politics come in the way of mutual respect. His eulogies for Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajiv Gandhi were beautifully poetic and poignant.
An unassuming man, he lamented not being able to go out and eat in a dhabha when he became the face of his party. His humility shown through his poetry. ‘Geet naya gaata hoon’ and ‘Oonchai’ are poems I can recite the lines to. There is a certain level of appreciation which is unimaginable for anyone else when you ask anyone about him. People who would not be fans of his party show particular reverence for him. This isn’t a geographical phenomena either. People coming from south India, Northeast and even Kashmir (where his ‘Insaniyat’ doctrine is still well-known) elicit positive opinions about Mr Vajpayee. He once went to the extent of making sure Government facilities like a car were not being used by his relatives. The respect he had for the Parliament and parliamentary procedures is also a significant precedent. A ‘Gentle Giant’ indeed.
I await a biography about his life. Theatrically so, he once lost a no-confidence motion by a single vote. He also spent years building an alternative political platform in India. His personal bravery during the unfortunate 1984 anti-Sikh riots, in stopping two people from harming another, was heroic. Of course, there are the not-so great moments too. Political and personal. The mistakes and faults make for a well-rounded story. A liberal man in the truest sense of the word. His is a story of a poet who somehow entered politics and couldn’t leave it. A man who desperately wanted to be a journalist but found himself on the other side. There will be people who shall enter politics, be great orators, earn admiration from friends and foes, they shall still be a pale imitation of Mr Vajpayee’s stature. There won’t be another one. This starts the end of an era where old-school politics will not work for a newer India.
I particularly liked his victory against the resistance he was faced with when he was Prime Minister. He was pressured from all sides to do this or that and yet, decisively, he did what he thought was right. He was big enough to apologise and seek corrective measures when he thought he was wrong too. He did that with certain schemes as well as certain events. The best part about him, however, like I said, will be his unparalleled sense of humour. I wish there were cameras since the 50s to appropriately capture his speeches. Anecdotal examples reveal themselves to be indicative of a man who used it as a healthy way to put his point forward. I wish there was more of that today.
A simple phrase he once said about himself “Bheed mai bhi akela mehsus karta hu” (I feel lonely even in crowds) struck me as daringly honest. It was strange relating to a then-65+ year old man who put something so simple yet empathetic. His unique way about himself was always nice to watch. India would benefit from having people sharing his characteristics in our political sphere. It would do good to move conversations about issues from an acrimonious way, to perhaps, an enjoyable one.
In one of his famous interviews he observes that he only wants to be remembered by people as an ‘aacha aadmi’. One who only wants to escape this dessert of politics respectably. I shall do him that courtesy, “aacha aadmi tha”.
You will be missed, Atalji.