A statesman who went beyond BJP’s nationalist agenda

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he first PM from a non-Congress party to complete a full term in office, Vajpayee began shakily his first stint as prime minister in 1996 lasted only 13 days when his unlikely coalition government failed to get support from other parties. The BJP-led coalition government came back to power in 1998, and this time Vajpayee stayed in office for 13 months before losing a no-confidence motion by one vote.

The NDA returned to power in October 1999 with Vajpayee as PM once again. This time he lasted the entire term, capping a glorious career that saw him go from student activist to journalist, RSS pracharak, Member of Parliament, foreign minister, Opposition leader and finally a much-loved leader of the nation. Vajpayee’s signature in politics was achieving pragmatic consensus, and in this process he earned the respect of his party, allies and opponents. Abroad, he projected a harmonious image of India and connected it to the world through his foreign policy outreach.

Fluent in English, his oratory was at its best in Hindi. With his well-timed wit, and carefully-chosen words delivered with trademark long pauses, Vajpayee immediately connected with all those who came in contact with him the common man, politicians, bureaucrats, students and world leaders.

While his six years in office were defined by several crises including the hijacking of an Indian Airlines jetliner to Kandahar in 1999, an attack on the Parliament in 2001, riots in Gujarat in 2002 he also left a mark with peace initiatives and infrastructural projects.

Unwilling to hide his feelings over the riots, Vajpayee said the government must follow ‘raj dharma’. The message was apparently for Modi, who was chief minister of Gujarat at that time. In his autobiography, Pranab Mukherjee wrote that the Gujarat riots were “possibly the biggest blot” on Vajpayee’s government that could have cost the BJP the 2004 polls.

13 days, 13 months and then he rewrote history

  •  After despairing for years that he would never become Prime Minister and was destined to remain an Opposition leader all his life, he achieved his goal, but only for 13 days, from May 16-28, 1996, after his deputy, LK Advani, chose not to contest elections that year.
  • His second term came on March 19, 1998, and lasted 13 months, a period during which India stunned the world by undertaking a series of nuclear tests that invited global reproach and sanctions.
  • Although his tenure again proved short-lived, his and his government’s enhanced stature following the world-defying blasts enabled him to return as Prime Minister for the third time on October 13, 1999, a tenure that lasted a full five-year term.
  • When finally he stepped down in May 2004, after an election that he was given to believe he would win, it marked the end of a long and eventful political career spanning six decades.

Of travels, crime thrillers and a lifelong association

‘Between the guns and guards, there were two dogs called Sassy and Sophie who would run around the Prime Minister’s house, and also Ritu, the cat,’ journalist Saba Naqvi writes in her recent book ‘Shades of Saffron’ in describing Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s personal life from close quarters.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee

  • Birth: Dec 25, 1924
  • Death: Aug 16, 2018
  • Atal ji was a great fan of Bhupen Hazarika and once requested the iconic singer to sing a famous Assamese song when he was in New Delhi.
  • Such was Atal ji’s love for food that it once took a wily plan by his aides to deploy Madhuri Dixit to draw him away from gulab jamun at an official lunch.
  • “Main ‘Atal’ bhi hoon aur ‘Bihari’ bhi.” This one liner from Atal ji at a poll rally in 2004, shows his penchant for humour.