Four instances that give different insights into the mind of a great human being who was also a favourite of political journalists.
Whether you liked his politics or not, Atal Bihari Vajpayee will be among the favourite politicians of almost any political journalist of his times. One, because he was big hearted, and second, he always had a smile even in a tough situation. The first time I met him, I wasn’t 26 yet. I was covering Assam in Guwahati and I got a call from the local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) office asking me to come and meet Vajpayee.
I went to the guest house where he was staying, on the outskirts of the city on a hill, and I thought I would be ushered into the VIP room. But he was sitting outside on the steps of the guest house and said, “aap toh naujawan hain (You are a young man, come sit with me here).” And we chatted for an hour, where he listened to me and let me talk. He didn’t lecture me, unlike all politicians who only want to lecture you.
He said, “Look, I understand that this is a very complex problem in Assam; it involves Hindus, Muslims, India, Pakistan, history of Partition, Bangladesh, Assamese, Bengalis…” And then he said, “I don’t know who will ever resolve this.” And we see even now with NRC the problem is still with us.
The second time, I met him during the 1984 elections which was the Rajiv Gandhi wave, he was contesting from Gwalior against Madhavrao Scindia. And we obviously thought he will win. This contest was called raja aur runk, king versus commoner. And we thought the king will have no chance. And there was very interesting history of how Vajpayee had gone to study in college on a scholarship given to him by Madhavrao Scindia’s father. So we were all on his side. But he cautioned us and said, “Look, this is a different kind of election. I don’t know what will happen here.”
Also read: The life and times of Atal Bihari Vajpayee
And the previous day, he had fractured his foot in Mehsana in Gujarat and had a plaster. So one of us asked him, “How will you fight the Congress party now with your foot in plaster?” and he lifted his leg and displayed it for the cameras, and said, “Their hand (Congress symbol) and my foot.” Everybody laughed, and he laughed. That was his method.
“Haaaaan, obviously, Atal ji should not be sleeping. PM should get a rifle, climb the mountains in Kargil and fight the Pakistanis because this country is so short of young people!”
Now I will tell you how prescient he was. In that election, the BJP got wiped out. He lost that election, Bahuguna lost that election to Amitabh Bachchan. BJP only got two seats in that election in a house of 543. After that I was writing a cover story on the state of India’s opposition, so I went to meet him. He again gave me time, although I was so junior. And in that interview, a published one, he said, “Look, I see a problem with my party: Our leaders are old. We need young leaders like Rajiv Gandhi as the youth of India has voted for Congress because it has a young leader.”
This was January 1985, 33 years back. He said, “We have some young leaders like Pramod Mahajan in Bombay, and Arun Jaitley in Delhi…We have to find a few more like them.” So that tells you something about his prescience, and also his big heart.
The third occasion was when I saw him as a problem-solver nationalist. He had not yet come to power, in 1996. The election had been announced and it looked like P.V. Narasimha Rao would be defeated. We broke a story at that point, that after the elections had been announced, Rao’s government had paid an advance to Yeltsin’s government in Russia to place an order for Sukhoi Su-30 aircraft, which is now the workhorse of the Indian Air Force. So immediately the opposition reacted. Jaswant Singh and Vajpayee said, “What is this? This looks like a scandal.”
But I was summoned to see him over breakfast.
I remember that morning he was buttering his toast and only feeding it to his little dog. I think it was a Pomeranian or a Lhasa Apso. He asked me, “Listen first of all is the story accurate?” I said, “The story is absolutely accurate. If we publish it, it should be accurate.”
“Second,” he said, “Is there a scandal in it?” I said, “I have no idea, but by the look of it, it doesn’t look like there’s a scandal in it. There might be some other story. At the same time the Air Force needs this plane very badly because it is really suffering with falling force levels.”
So he said, “Let’s wait for some time, I don’t want this to have the Bofors curse. Let’s wait and find out more.” And he and Jaswant Singh exchanged notes and then they decided to not talk about this. And that scandal, or so-called scandal, died at that point. When they came to power for 13 days, they saw the files and they figured what the truth was.
The truth was that just as India was having its elections, Yeltsin was having his election. And the factory that makes the Sukhoi in Russia was based in Yeltsin’s constituency and had not paid salaries to its staff for a long time. So Yeltsin requested Rao that if he could pay an advance to his government, they would be able to pay salaries which would work for his election. Rao made that deal not to shore up his electoral prospects but Yeltsin’s. India needed that plane anyway and got a good deal.
Later, when Vajpayee lost and H.D. Deve Gowda’s government came to power, he, Jaswant Singh, Mulayam Singh Yadav, and Congress leaders, in a story that I have described in detail in ThePrint, got together. They studied the entire deal and figured there was no scandal in it and let the deal go through. And today the Su-30 is the pride of the Indian Air Force.
There were two more conversations after that that I will list here. One was during the war in Kargil. I had sought time with him, so I went to meet him, and I was sitting in his anteroom for an hour and a half. My appointment was at 3 pm, I was ushered in at 4:30, because his staff kept on whispering to me “Atal ji so rahe hai, utthe nahi, kaise uthayen? (Atal ji is asleep. How do we wake him up?)”
When he woke up, he looked at me in mock horror and said, “Arre Shekharji, Shekharji, anarth ho gaya. Aapko itni der pratiksha karaya (I made you wait for this long, now how will I answer you?)” Again, I sort of mocked back because you could take liberties with him. I said, “Desh ka yudh ho raha hai Kargil mein!(The country is at war and the PM is sleeping in the afternoon?)”
So he said “Haaaaan, obviously, Atal ji should not be sleeping. PM should get a rifle, climb the mountains in Kargil and fight the Pakistanis because this country is so short of young people!” It was very disarming and also very funny in an extremely tense environment. It also tells you how to deal with stress.
The fourth time was when an attack on Parliament took place and it looked like Pakistan and India would go to war any time. Again, I asked for time. It was winter, he sat me with him in his garden and offered me soup (which he was also drinking…it had too much salt in it). In the middle of this, I said, “Atalji, aap yudh karne wale hai ke nahi? (Will you go to war?)”
He said “Aapko kyun batayen? (Why should I tell you?)” I said, “Uska karan hai,” and told him jokingly that my family and I had planned a vacation in Munnar in Kerala. I said, “I don’t want to be caught there while you start a war and airspaces are closed. How will I answer my grandchildren?”
“Shekharji, yeh samay hai chhutti par jaane ka? (Is this a time to go on vacation?)” he asked. I thought he’s really going to war. And then he gave me a little lecture.
He said, “Look, everybody wants to go to war. Armed forces want to go to war, everybody’s angry. I asked them, when the history of this war is written, what will be the name of this war?” So I asked him, “What does it mean?”
He said, “Every war has a name. You call something the Yom Kippur War, the Six Day war, Bangladesh Liberation war. Because the name that you seek for the war is the objective you have for the war. So is the objective to occupy Pakistan? No. Is the objective to break up Pakistan? No. Is the objective to capture the rest of Kashmir? No. What is the objective? Is it just to beat up the Pakistanis because you are angry? In that case you have to call it the war of anger. Do you really want a war of anger?”
And then he said, “Dekhiye, when you begin a war, where you begin a war, how you begin a war, is entirely in your hands. Where the war will stop, how it will stop, when it will stop, is not in your hands.” That’s why a leader, a rajneta (statesman) as he said, has to stop many times before taking his country to war.
“In that case,” I said, “you are not going to war.”
“Well, the preparation and the threat of war have to be so real that even we believe it, and you believe it. Only then will coercive diplomacy work, and if it leads up to war, it leads up to war, I will take that risk,” he said.
These few instances give you different insights into the mind of a really great human being, a statesman, however imperfect.
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