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The man who redefined India

Bharat Ratna Atal Bihari Vajpayee, will always be remembered as one of the few colossuses who strode the Indian political scene as a statesman.

The genial giant was a Hema Malini fan who watched the blockbuster movie Seeta Aur Geeta 25 times. During 1980s this former External Affairs Minister (EAM) along with his bosom friend L K Advani could be spotted watching Hindi movies in Connaught Place! A poet, and an outstanding orator, he blossomed during the evening of his life.
Born on Christmas day in 1924, Atal Bihari Vajpayee joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1939, the year the Second World War broke out. A protégé of Prachark Babasaheb Apte, Atal did his M A in Political Science. After that, he enrolled for LLB where his father was his classmate and roomie! However, he never completed the course. The call of the nation was more profound than the desire to pick a law degree.

Friendship with prime ministers

One of the few outstanding politicians in contemporary India, Vajpayee was on friendly terms with people across the political divide. He first caught Pandit Nehru’s eye during his own early days as a parliamentarian. Nehru introduced Atal to the British Prime Minister saying, “Meet him. Atal is a young leader who has always criticized me, but I see in him a great future.” To another foreign dignitary, Nehru described Vajpayee as “a prospective prime minister.”
Vajpayee once called Panditji ‘a cross between Churchill and Chamberlain,’ but Nehru didn’t take offense. In fact, that evening at a banquet, the prime minister complimented the young parliamentarian for a “solid speech.” When Vajpayee took over as External Affairs Minister in the summer of 1977, a few officers removed Nehru’s portrait from the gallery in south block of parliament to please the new power masters. The EAM noticed it and had the picture restored.
Vajpayee may not have shared the same warmth with Nehru’s daughter, Indira Priyadarshini. Yet in 1972 when India bested Pakistan in the
Liberation War, he was quick to compare Mrs. Gandhi with goddess Durga. In return, Indira Gandhi often reached out to him for counsel on matters of national interest. Her son and reluctant heir, Rajiv Gandhi, was deferential to Atalji. Vajpayee told TV journalist Karan Thapar that the young prime minister on coming to know that the elder statesman had a kidney problem that needed treatment included him in India’s delegation to the UN and hoped Atal would use the opportunity to get the necessary treatment. Vajpayee said, “I went to New York and that is one reason I am alive today.”
His relationship with Narasimha Rao was excellent. In 1994, when Pakistan was making a fuss at international forums about alleged human rights violations in J&K and India was on the verge of facing UN sanctions, Rao packed Atal to Geneva as the leader of the Indian
delegation knowing full well that he alone had the oratorical skills to sway the UN towards India’s way. Vajpayee didn’t fail Rao, and the hug that Minister Salman Khurshid had for Atal made its way to the cover of India Today. In later years after the death of Rao, the charismatic leader acknowledged that Pokhran II was developed under the leadership of Rao and that he merely detonated the nuclear weapon.
In a remarkable show of political maturity, the Rao government awarded Atal Bihari with a Padma Vibushan.

At the helm…

Atal Bihari had three stints as prime minister. The first was in 1996 when he held office for all of 13 days. With 161 seats in the pocket and needing another 111 in two weeks, he failed to move a single MP. The occasion would be remembered for his soul-stirring speech, and was telecast live on national television. His second stint (1898-99) was for about 13 months and came to an end when his party lost the no-confidence motion by 1 vote. The move was courtesy Subramanian Swamy who managed to bring Sonia Gandhi and J Jayalalithaa together for a tea party. The 13-day regime was however marked by stellar decisions. Pokhran II was carried out in total secrecy, keeping no one in the loop.

A year later in 1999, during his second stint, his government kicked off the Delhi Lahore Bus service and the prime minister himself was a passenger during the inaugural function. Incidentally, and remarkably, the bus service continued even upon the outbreak of the Kargil war and was called off only in the aftermath of the 2001 attack on the parliament. And then came the Kargil War in July 1999. It was a rare instance of direct conventional warfare between two nuclear nations.
Vajpayee may have lost the vote of confidence by one vote, but at the 1999 husting, the nation voted the BJP to power with the tag of the single largest party. A rainbow coalition of 13 parties formed the government that lasted a full term making Atal the first non-Congress head of government to complete a full term.

The period was marked by standout events. By far the darkest of them was Kandahar, the hijacking of IC 814 in December 1999. Vajpayee buckled under pressure and his government released three terrorists including Maulana Masood Azhar, to secure the release of passengers on board IC 814 hijacked from Kathmandu and taken to Kandahar. Two years later, in the winter of December 2001, five LeT terrorists stormed India’s temple of democracy, the parliament and Vajpayee enacted a robust political response over instant military action. In 2002 the Gujarat riots happened, and at a presser, Vajpayee remarked that Modi, then chief minister, “follow his Rajdharma.” He was clearly gunning for his resignation, but Vajpayee’s longtime friend L K Advani stepped beside Narendra Modi to save the poster boy of Hindutva from being banished politically.

The genial giant will be best remembered for visioning the golden quadrilateral that would connect India’s major cities by road. His telecom policy unleashed the telecom revolution in India as the country replaced fixed licence fees with a revenue-sharing arrangement. The GDP rate was above 8 percent, inflation was below 4 and foreign exchange reserves were bulging. Vajpayee went to the 2004 polls on the strength of an India-shining campaign, and against wide expectations, the BJP lost power. With that Atalji was finished as a politician. His health was already deteriorating and the TIME magazine said, “he was sleeping at the wheels.,” or words to that effect.

End of an era

On 16 August, one of India’s finest politicians gave up his fight to live. He had been struggling for almost a decade, and was a pale shadow of his former self. The following day the nation paid a tearful farewell even as his foster daughter Namita Bhattacharya lit the funeral pyre to the chant of Vedic hymns.

India’s eternally loved politician was a great cook and foodie who would always want to taste the local cuisine. He will be remembered for his exceptional oratory, and his death definitely marks the end of an era: an era when politicians could fight inside parliament and be friends outside.

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