Atalji as I knew him
A song silenced, a flame has vanished in the infinite. Mother India is stricken with grief today — she has lost her favourite son.” In these poetic words Atal Bihari Vajpayee paid homage to Pandit Jawaharalal Nehru in the Rajya Sabha in 1964. What he said of Pandit Nehru is equally appropriate for him as the nation is now paying homage to Atalji himself who is no more. The voice of the man who sang his speeches as melodiously as Lata Mangeshkar is now eternally silenced. His flame that lit the country has vanished into the infinite. The nation grieves over the death of her poetic son who was her devotee all his life.
Explicit on core beliefs
A multidimensional personality whose interests comprehended the big and small aspects of life and ranged from politics to literature, poetry to music, culinary expertise to relishing good food, Atalji was no career politician like most politicians today are. Being schooled in the shakhas and training camps of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Atalji entered politics not for acquiring political power for himself or the party, but as a mission to build the nation. Intending to bring about a paradigm shift to a drifting national polity, Atalji did it deftly and successfully.
Yet, he never compromised on his core beliefs even as the BJP was on the verge of transmigrating from the opposition to the ruling domain. In an article in Organiser magazine, Atalji described the RSS as his soul. This was just before the 1996 Lok Sabha elections in which the BJP was set to contend for power at the Centre. While his Organiser article cost him the confidence vote in Lok Sabha in 1996 where the opposition cited his RSS credentials and voted his 13-day government out, he overcame the objections to him first and by leveraging on that; later he also overcame reservations in the polity for his beliefs, which paved the way for the rise of the BJP later. What made this transformation possible?
Yet, he was the most acceptable face
If in the 1940s Nehru was the best and the most acceptable person from Gandhiji’s stable, in the 1990s, Atalji was the most liked and the most agreeable face of the RSS school of thought. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, within the BJP, L K Advani had emerged as the towering leader of the party overshadowing even his mentor and leader Atalji because of the game-changing Ram Temple movement he had led from 1986. With the BJP emerging as the principal opposition to the Congress, many thought that party president Advani would be the automatic choice of the party for prime ministership in the 1996 elections.
But Advani stunned everyone by announcing, in a mass rally in Shivaji Park in Mumbai, that Atalji would be the party candidate for prime ministership. He made it a fait accompli, consulting none except his conscience as he later told his colleagues. When some of us asked him why he did that way, he said, “Atalji is the acceptable face of outside the party, not me,” adding that without commanding trans-party respect, it is difficult to form and head a coalition government.” This genuine, selfless and at the same time strategic move of Advani to present Atalji to overcome the reservations of national polity about the BJP was the first step towards the BJP’s rise to power within a couple of years.
The mutual love of Atal and Advani was unprecedented. They had shared the same apartment, with Atalji who was a culinary expert, cooking for both for years. But, Advani, who, as Khushwant Singh said, ate in morsels, was no good eater, though Atalji was. Indeed both were a political twin.
The Atal phenomenon
Thanks to his love for Atalji, not only was Advani self-abnegating towards his mentor, he was farsighted and prophetic as well. It was Atalji’s trans-party acceptability that finally helped the BJP, which failed to cobble together a majority in 1996, to sew up a coalition in 1998 and win the election. When he lost the confidence motion by one vote, Atalji worked out an even larger coalition and won the 1999 elections.
Advani’s theory to present Atalji as the agent for change, actually a paradigm shift, worked to perfection and gradually made the national polity accustomed to becoming less BJP-resistant and more BJP-inclusive in the late 1990s and there onwards.
The pseudo-secular parties, including the communists, had shown by their conduct since 1967 that they would accept the BJP, or its previous avatar the Jana Sangh, as a coalition partner to form governments to be ruled by them — be it in Madhya Pradesh, UP, Bihar in the late 1960s or at the Centre in 1977 or 1989 — but they not allow the BJP to rule. The self-serving theory of Indian secularists that the BJP was welcome as a supporter, but untouchable as a ruler exposed the pseudo secular nature of the polity.
The rise of the BJP combined with the Atalji phenomenon demolished this secular political myth created in 1980s that Indian secularism and BJP rule were not compatible.
The Atal phenomenon was built on the Atal differentials, the first of which was his connect with the masses. The brilliant orator that he was, he could effortlessly convey Jana Sangh’s philosophic alternative, which secularists of the Nehruvian mould abhorred, to the masses in the 1950s and 1960s. He travelled more in buses and even cycles, less in cars, not to speak of air travel. He once slept in a Railway station when the party cadre couldn’t turn up in time to receive him.
His melodious voice reverberated through the length and breadth of the geography where his chaste and enticing Hindi oration echoed in the minds of the people and evangelised them into the alternative paradigm he was preaching. His oration cut across thought barriers to win him admiration of those who differed from him. When Jawaharlal Nehru, the man who hated the RSS, heard Atalji speak in Parliament, he prophetically said that Atalji might become a prime minister one day.
Atalji’s poetic rendering of speeches made DMK leader C N Annadurai, an inveterate crusader against Hindi, say that if the Hindi language were like what Atalji spoke he would have no objection to that! By the late 1960s, the Atal phenomenon had become unignorable. By 1970s, it had become unobjectionable. By 1980s and 1990s he had become personally acceptable though not his philosophy. Atalji first provided the alibi for the detractors of the BJP to later accept it. And they did later. Example: DMK leader M Karunanidhi described Atalji as the right man in the wrong party — indicating he was acceptable, but not the BJP. To which Atalji beautifully responded, “Mangoes cannot grow on a neem tree.” The very same Karunanidhi found Atalji as the excuse to vote for the BJP-led coalition in 1998, and join the BJP-led coalition in 1999. This was the effect of the Atal differential.
No black-and-white approach
One can easily understand the philosophic foundation of the Atal differential. He once told me “Guru, the world is not black and white. Ninety-nine per cent of it is grey with shades of white and black. Keep this in mind. Every shade of opinion has to be recognised.” This perspective needed a large heart with a 360 degree view, which will never break whatever the pressure.His famous saying that “Chhote man se koi bada nahi hota, tute man se koi khada nahi hota” - meaning “with a small heart no one becomes great, with a broken heart no one stands up”, sums up his personality.
Atalji himself lived as a standing example of what he wrote. He and his party faced defeats after defeats in the 1950s and 1960s. But that did not break his heart. Advani once told me that after the Jana Sangh lost heavily in the Delhi Municipal elections, Atalji suggested they go to a film titled “Fir Subh Hogi” — meaning “Morning will dawn again”. They walked to the theatre and enjoyed the film!
Defeats did not break his heart. His poetry enabled him to express and lighten his pains. And his large heart enabled him to overcome all sense of enemy and enmities. Enmity, which is a product of small minds, dissolves in a larger heart. Shukra Neeti says no one should declare another as one’s enemy — even if one is declared as the enemy by the other. Atalji instinctively followed Shukra Neeti. If Atalji was respected by even his political adversaries, it was because he had no enemies in his mind.
Hardness in the soft
The poet and philosopher, soft and gentle Atalji was equally a powerful and successful politician and statesman. In 1977, when Indira Gandhi wanted to get popular endorsement for Emergency by declaring snap elections, the Janata party leaders were worried by the frightening atmosphere in the country. Atalji, a man of the masses, said, “badi badi rallyan honi chahiye, janata hava banegi, bhay jayega” — meaning big rallies must be held, they will create a wave and people will lose fear. And that is precisely what happened. Huge and unprecedented rallies created the Janata wave that finally swept off all wrong doers.
Atalji combined the hardness of Indira and the softness of Nehru. Inside the soft Atalji lay concealed the hard power of a patriot. When he came to power in 1998, he demolished the myth that the Buddhist and Gandhian India would ever remain soft for the harsh world to push it around. He ordered the Pokhran atomic blast and faced global boycott. First, he brought the world opinion around to recognise India’s urge for rise as a soft power without hard power backup and finally put the country on the growth trajectory, which it never had attempted by itself in the post independence history.
Under him the economy posted two continuous years of current account surplus in 2002-2004 — totalling to $20 billion — first time after 1977-78, and astounded the world into noticing India’s rise through largely domestic investment and efforts, not through external impulses of FDI and exports. Inflation down to minimum, GDP touching the historic high of 8 per cent, and the state generating 60 million jobs in five years, the NDA government led by him made the world to acknowledge India as a rising economic power.
This paved the way for the relentless rise of India later, though hiccups and scams during UPA II slowed India down and is hampering its rise even now. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Atalji firmly put the country on the global map long after Pundit Nehru did in 1950s and Indira Gandhi in early 1970s — both for brief periods.
Finally, as he said when paying homage to Nehru, the “body is ephemeral”. His ephemeral body is gone but his spirit lives on. The powerful India he had dreamt of and conceptualised, differing from the liberals and seculars, is an emerging reality now. History will record how he paradigm-shifted a soft nation into a soft power backed by hard power.