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So, that was Atal ji

Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s political life was remarkable. He was a Brahmin by birth, yet not an archetypal one; he was a rightist, yet not a typical right-wing politician; he just about passed muster both as a poet and a political critic, but he was neither a poet nor a critic; though a bachelor, in his own words, he was not a bramhachari; when socialism was being fused with Marxism he aligned the former with Gandhism. Premkumar Mani remembers him

Atal Bihari Vajpayee: 25 December 1924- 16 August 2018

At last, Atal Bihari Vajpayee is no longer alive. Death comes to every mortal, be it a king or a pauper or a fakir. Atal had the qualities of a king and a fakir, but he was never a pauper. Being a politician he had his share of hypocrisy, yet something in him set him apart from his ilk.

Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee

He was a right-wing politician throughout. He was a member of RSS, Jana Sangh and later, BJP and didn’t change loyalties. He dealt with his opponents shrewdly. Deendayal Upadhyay remained president of Jana Sangh barely for 44 days. And then came the news Atal eagerly awaited. Deendayal’s body had been found next to a pole near the Mughalsarai railway station. Everybody is aware of Professor Balraj Madhok’s fate. He kept writing about Atal’s hypocrisy and alerting his countrymen. But nobody heeded him and he died in obscurity. Govindacharya was shunted out. Kalyan Singh tried projecting himself as the Lalu of BJP. With the help of Lalji Tandon and Kalraj Mishra, Vajpayee spun a clever, complex web around him so as to still him forever as had been done to Ahilya. Advani also met a somewhat similar fate. He was kept as a bonsai in his drawing room. All these manoeuvres weakened the party.

But Gujarat became his Waterloo. He tried to finish off Narendra Modi politically. He delayed dispatching the army to Godhra by 69 hours and told the Press that his advice on raj dharma was not heeded. It was a duel between a Brahmin and a Ghanchi (warrior-turned-business caste categorized as OBC). For the first time, Atal lost a duel – to a craftier opponent. Narendra Modi became the natural leader of BJP. A transformed party needed a leader like him.

Atal was a multifaceted personality. He was a Brahmin by birth, yet not an archetypal one; he was a rightist, yet not a typical right-wing politician; he just about passed muster both as a poet and as a political critic, but he was neither a poet nor a critic; though a bachelor, in his own words, he was not a bramhachari; when socialism was being fused with Marxism he aligned the former with Gandhism. He had endeared himself to varied personalities, such as Pandit Nehru and Indira Gandhi, alike. Whatever one may say, he was a charismatic figure. Though, over a chance meeting, I searched hard for that glow on his face, but, for reasons unknown, I couldn’t find it.

He was accepted as the leader of BJP under trying times. The grapevine had it that he was disappointed with his party and was looking for a place in socialist camp. Then the demolition of Babri Masjid followed and Advani resigned as the leader of the opposition.  Atal’s joy new no bounds. Advani resigned from the Lok Sabha following the Hawala Scandal. Now the field was wide open to Atal. A dejected Advani declared Atal as the leader of BJP. Thus the party became Atal.

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His mercurial temperament came in handy for the BJP. Politically, the country was in turmoil. Congress was going downhill and BJP was not doing well, either. Following the Babri Masjid demolition, BJP had become a pariah of sorts. He admitted so, in his emotional speech in 1996. Political uncertainty resulted in a general election barely two years later. Atal formed the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). No party could obtain a majority. A debate followed as to who is the least bad leader. It is ironical that Atal won the race to prime ministership by virtue of being the least bad leader rather than being the best. He held the post for about six years. His popularity soared with the nuclear explosion but it dipped sharply with the Kargil War. The general election was held six months before the scheduled date on the plank of a “shining India”. But his party lost the election.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee is sworn in as prime minister by president Shankar Dayal Sharma. His first tenure lasted only 13 days

He was in a vegetative state for the 12 years before his death. It is a medical miracle that he was “alive” for so long. Some aspects of him will linger in memory. He played a long innings in politics – from the establishment of Bharatiya Jana Sangh in 1951 until he went into a coma. Soft-spoken, jovial, fond of wining and dining, Atal was a fairly committed democrat and not at all a religious bigot. This is why he did not find favour with the Sangh authorities in Nagpur. It won’t be incorrect to say that he was a collage of different personalities and traits. He was a little of Syama Prasad Mukherjee, Sawarkar, Hegdewar, Nehru, Lohia, Kaka Hathrasi and Gowalkar. Without doubt, he was a patriot and a humanitarian. He could never be a dictator. He was a good talker and equally a good listener. I witnessed from the public gallery in Parliament in 1999 his quality to laugh at himself. Lalu was criticizing his government, hammer and tongs, using his humour and soon had everybody in splits. Nobody laughed more than Atal himself. He knew how to enjoy himself.

He kept politics out of his friendships: Vajpayee with former prime minister Chandra Shekhar and others

I would like to share an incident of my youth when Lok Sabha mid-term polls were underway in 1971. Kailashpati Mishra, a stalwart from the Jana Sangh, was pitted against a combative Ramavatar Shastri of Communist Party of India (CPI) in Patna constituency. Some youngsters from the CPI youth wing, including myself, had decided to show black flags to Atal ji in Naubatpur during his scheduled speech. We were ready. Ramnath Yadav, CPI’s zonal secretary, took us aside and told us that Shastri ji didn’t want us to show our protest. This had us puzzled but there was more to come. After the speech, Atal ji and Shashtri ji met each other like lost-and-found brothers. We learnt that both of them were members of Rajbhasha Parliamentary committee and as such committed to the cause of Hindi. They were close pals, and each was often in the other’s home to share a meal.

So, this was Atal ji for you.

My heartfelt condolence to him.


Translation: Parmanand Baiga; copy-editing: Anil

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About The Author

Premkumar Mani

Premkumar Mani is a leading Hindi writer and thinker. In politics, he is known for his advocacy of social justice