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File picture of Vajpayee visiting the Pokhran site after N-bomb tests in 1998
The last time one saw A B Vajpayee engage in public life was exactly a decade ago: July 22, 2008. The day of the trust vote for his successor, Manmohan Singh. Vajpayee was wheeled into the Lok Sabha lobby. He cast his vote quietly and was wheeled away. He was already beyond all oratory, all witticisms. It must have sounded like a party in the next house to him: a faint din, perhaps flashes of memory of a place he once owned. A decade, as the variable truism goes, is a long time in life and politics. It’s indeed been a long, fuzzy winter for one of the most warm-blooded personas in Indian public life.
Vajpayee was many things to many people — a quintessential moderate, a poet-prime minister, a gifted orator who had a leg-spinner’s grip over the seam of the language, a consensus-builder who first shone with his special approach to foreign policy, beginning in the 1970s and casting a glow on his tenure as PM. A Nehruvian legacy he gave a second life to — a global elan that PMs still covet.
It was a pleasure to hear Vajpayee deliver a speech — moving between classical and folksy Hindi, never needing to lower the level of discourse to either hit or disarm the opponent. His sense of humour never deserted him even in the most dire situation. When his government in 1996 fell because no party was ready to support the BJP, still a political ‘untouchable’, Vajpayee spoke with hurt writ over his face, but still with a self-aware wit. “Kai baar is sadan mein bola gaya, Vajpayee toh achhe hain, lekin party achhi nahin...” (they say he’s the right man in the wrong party).
That government did not survive more than 13 days, but his words did. And came to represent Vajpayee, a man whose popularity went much beyond his own political circle or electoral base. If a leader’s stature can be determined by the anecdotes, quotable quotes and folklore surrounding him, Vajpayee wins hands down. Indeed, it’s a flood — everyone you ask, across ideological divides, would have one fond memory to recount. A well-known historian staunchly opposed to the BJP told this writer of Vajpayee’s mesmerising lecture on Kalidasa that he’d heard in his student days, never to be forgotten: “One of the best Hindi speakers this country has produced.”
The man retreated from public life, perforce due to a condition that impaired his cognitive skills; he lived on in these little memories. Years after his 13-month government collapsed by a whisker, Sansuma Khunggur Bwiswmuthiary would tell how his one vote could have secured Vajpayee. All the independent MP from Kokrajhar had asked for — from Pramod Mahajan, then the BJP’s chief liaison man — was a letter promising help to create a Bodoland out of Assam.
Mahajan first took him to Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and then ‘Baapji’ — as Vajpayee was referred to in the BJP. In his typical and soon-to-be-famous style, Vajpayee heard him out silently, and quietly said: “How can I promise you something that’s not in my power but in Parliament’s domain, verbally or in writing…that would not be correct.” That he refused to make a compromise to win a vote is how the Bodo MP’s bitter-sweet memory of Vajpayee goes.
On the controversial Ayodhya movement, the province of Advani, he equivocated. Vajpayee both called Babri Masjid a blot on Indian history, and spoke those nocturnal words about “samtal zameen” (ground to be levelled), and then said after December 6—“bahut galat hua” (a great wrong has happened). He cultivated that twin-faced moderation, the art of making a statement without revealing his mind. His words were a moveable feast.
Despite this same deliberate ambivalence attending to it, he is regarded as a statesman in the realm of foreign policy — not just by wonks but even the opposition, the Left included. His imagination here was driven equally by humanism and pragmatism. As PM, he could detonate the N-bomb, then take a bus to Lahore and take Pakistan by storm — giving matinee idol Dev Anand his biggest play outside cinema — only to be badly bitten by the Kargil treachery.
Still peace for the subcontinent was such an article of faith for him that he wouldn’t mind opening a dialogue with Gen Pervez Musharraf. Vajpayee wanted the subcontinent to be like the European Union, a federation of sovereign nations of free trade and free movement of people, as a senior bureaucrat in his PMO recounted. Nostalgia runs big when Vajpayee is the topic. He would carry on with Narasimha Rao’s policy of strategic engagement with the US and Israel. He didn’t flinch from moves that would draw criticism, like the hostage exchange of Kandahar, but he knew where to draw the line. The late CPI leader A B Bardhan often recounted to this writer how he used the Left to drum up opposition against sending troops to Iraq. “Vajpayee had a deep understanding of what’s good for the country, and an open mind.”
That open mind is what turned hardline Hindutvawallahs against him — though he never refrained from announcing that he was a “proud swayamsevak”. Contradictions abounded in his person. He would send Ashok Singhal and his band of VHP leaders to Saibaba of Puttaparthi to convince them to give up disruptive Hindutva and engage in benevolent nation-building. But consensus proved elusive during the most crucial moments. Singhal stormed out of the meeting telling Vajpayee, “he was a PM at their pleasure, not the other way round.” Godhra followed. The rest is familiar history. His economic policies too had a two-faced nature: slivers of India shined, the rest voted him out. Still, he had ruled a far less disgruntled and more cohesive nation.