WARM, generous, liberal, lenient, humorous, witty. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, or Atal ji , as he was fondly called by one and all, was all this plus much more as a person. His genial personality also had a not-so-pleasant side that manifested itself in flashes of intolerance to criticism and in his ability to be party to the planning and execution of sinister designs, even as his cherubic smile gave nothing away.
There was, however, no doubt that mostly Vajpayee was like the soothing family patriarch who grappled with contentious issues without getting hassled or irritated. He was a much-revered leader even before he became Prime Minister. But despite his national stature, Vajpayee came across as a warm human being who was aware of his frailties as a man, transparent about his personal life but averse to giving any explanations, capable of being extremely angry and not afraid to show it in public, and fond of good food, especially jalebi s, rabri and chaat .
This writer’s first encounter with Vajpayee was in Lucknow on February 21, 1998. Those were the days of extreme political drama in Uttar Pradesh. Like seasonal flowers, governments in Lucknow would fall and new ones would bloom out of nowhere. In this particular instance, the then Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, headed by Kalyan Singh had been reduced to a minority after a breakaway faction of the Congress, called the Loktantrik Congress, led by Jagdambika Pal and then Naresh Agrawal (both are in the BJP now), suddenly withdrew support. Governor Romesh Bhandari, no stranger to such political somersaults, promptly dismissed the Kalyan Singh government without batting an eyelid and hoisted Jagdambika Pal as the Chief Minister. The BJP raised a hue and cry. The uproar was all the more strident because the Lok Sabha elections were under way and the next round of voting was only a week away. Vajpayee, who had been dethroned as Prime Minister after 13 days in office in 1996, was the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and was contesting the election from Lucknow. Obviously, at this time there was a carnival-like atmosphere in Lucknow.
As the candidate from Lucknow, Vajpayee could not have kept away from the circus. He announced a fast-unto-death to protest against this murder of democracy. His demand was that Kalyan Singh should be allowed to prove his majority in the Assembly as per the Supreme Court’s judgment in the S.R. Bommai case.
The high-pitched political drama reached a crescendo on February 21, 1998, when Vajpayee reached Lucknow to start his hunger strike. The frenzied media were waiting for his arrival at the VVIP Guest House. I, as a representative of The Economic Times in Lucknow then, was also there, waiting in a corner of the corridor. The moment he arrived, mediapersons pushed forward and, predictably, were pushed back by the Special Protection Group (SPG). As the lone woman journalist, I stood slightly away from the others, and when Vajpayee came near walked towards him and joined him in his walk towards the entrance of the building. He looked at me, smiled and started talking. A member of the SPG lunged forward in a bid to stop me, brushing my shoulder in the process. Immediately Vajpayee stretched out his arm, blocking the SPG personnel, and continued talking to me while walking towards the entrance of the lobby. At the door, he asked me to wait, saying he would discuss the matter with party leaders first and then talk to the media at length. I did not even think twice about what had happened, used as journalists are to such rough situations while covering events. To my surprise, after about five minutes, the SPG member who had tried to stop me came over and apologised to me. Later that day I was told by some senior BJP leaders who were with Vajpayee that he had expressed displeasure at the manner in which the SPG member had acted and asked him to apologise. I was impressed by his gentlemanly gesture. Vajpayee visited Lucknow often. Senior BJP leader and the newly appointed Governor of Bihar, Lalji Tandon, who is from Lucknow, hosted chaat parties whenever Atalji was in town. I had a few occasions to attend such chaat parties with Atal ji as the chief guest and was always delighted to see him relish his jalebi s, rabri s and papdi chaat with abandon. He shunned journalistic queries on such occasions and advised us to first savour the delicacies.
Vajpayee’s love for Indian delicacies often took him to Chandni Chowk in Delhi, Aminabad and Chowk in Lucknow and Khau Gali in Indore, food lover’s paradise, all. Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan, who hails from Indore, once regaled me with stories of how Atal ji would often look for excuses to come to Indore so that he could gorge on sweets and chaat in Khau Gali. Khau Gali, interestingly, is the name the city’s jewellery market acquires at night when jewellery shops are closed and eateries spring up and do brisk business through the night. Sumitra Mahajan, even today, chuckles while describing how Atal ji would sit cross-legged on the floor and eat kachori s, jalebi s and rabri .
The fact that he was uninhibited, whether in his eating preferences or his life choices, was obvious to the world. The transparency he displayed in his personal life should be a lesson to the politicians of today. The world knew Atal ji as a bachelor despite his open relationship with his companion. He never explained to anyone the nature of this companionship, but he never kept it a secret either.
On one occasion, he was to address a meeting in Lucknow which was attended by the city’s intelligentsia, business leaders, bureaucrats, political leaders and the rest of its who’s who. He had not yet become the Prime Minister. When it was time to invite him on stage, the host announced in chaste Hindi: “ Bhaiyon aur behano, ab apke samne aa rahe hai, kavi, wakta, sabke priya neta, chir brahmachari Atal Bihari Vajpayee ji .” (Brothers and sisters, now comes on stage the famous poet, fiery orator, a beloved leader, the forever celibate bachelor Atal Bihari Vajpayee.) Atalji came on stage, took the mike, looked at the assembled crowd with amusement, smiled the best of his cherubic smiles, his eyes twinkling, and after his characteristic long pause said: “ Deviyon aur sajjano, isse pehle ki main kuchh aur kahun main bata dun ki main kunwara zaroor hun par brahmachari nahi .” (Ladies and gentlemen, before I say anything let me tell you I may be unmarried but am not celibate.) It took a few moments for this to register with the crowd, and then the hall dissolved in laughter. Lucknow will forever cherish this hearty laughter in which Atalji was an enthusiastic participant.
On another occasion, it was disarming to see that this very public man could also become nervous when surrounded by women. This was when he invited women journalists in Delhi for tea with him on International Women’s Day at his official residence after he became Prime Minister. Hundreds of women journalists turned up at 7, Race Course Road. Women were all lining up to get their picture clicked with him. I teasingly told him that he must be enjoying the company of so many enlightened women. Atalji, in his typical style, rolled his eyes, raised his hands and said “Arrey nahi, mujhe to bahut ghabrahat ho rahi hai.” (Oh no, I am getting nervous.) Sushma Swaraj, who was seated next to him, was reeling with laughter.
Benign and humorous in his personality, Atalji also possessed a warmth of heart that was evident after the attack on Parliament House on December 13, 2001. Speaking in Parliament on December 19, Vajpayee thanked his political opponent Sonia Gandhi, who, he said, was the first to inquire about his well being after she came to know of the attack. The attack happened after question hour and before zero hour had begun. Sonia Gandhi had gone out after question hour, but she thought the Prime Minister was still inside the complex when the attack took place. Vajpayee said that he was touched by Sonia Gandhi’s gesture and that he was convinced democracy would always thrive in India where political leaders rose above party lines to worry about the well-being of adversaries.
The same speech also carried a glimpse of the tough leader he was when he indirectly criticised the United States for categorising terrorism as “good terrorism” or “bad terrorism”. “India is capable of handling the challenge alone, we have successfully combated terror before. Now the other countries have to decide where they want to be seen,” he said.
Although Vajpayee has been described as the quintessential secularist, in contrast to his hard-line friend and colleague L.K. Advani, there were layers to his personality. For example, it is widely believed that Vajpayee never approved of Advani’s rath yatra and was never a party to the destructive game plan of December 6, 1992, in Ayodhya. Yet his speeches only a day before the demolition of the Babri Masjid suggest otherwise. Though he apologised for what happened on December 6, 1992, it did not make him part ways with the BJP.
This side of his personality was evident when he faced a no-confidence motion against his government on August 19, 2003. A no-confidence motion is an essential tool in the hands of the opposition in a functioning democracy. Yet, while replying to the charges levelled by the Leader of the Opposition, Sonia Gandhi, he attacked her with unusually harsh words and rebuked her for bringing the no-confidence motion. Quite uncharacteristically, instead of replying to the charges she had levelled, he ridiculed her choice of words and her lack of proficiency in Hindi and said that she sounded as if she had collected difficult words from the dictionary and then used all of them in one paragraph. He reminded her of maryada in public life, though it was not clear how she had violated any maryada by bringing the motion. He chided her for abusing him and asked her to wait patiently for her turn instead of indulging in “political one-upmanship in order to topple his government”. Sonia Gandhi left him speechless with her reply: “When I speak about people’s problems, he speaks about my foreign origin. When I speak about the country he talks about my language skills. As an opposition it is our moral and democratic duty to bring this motion but he has not replied to any of our charges.”
Vajpayee was a warm and sociable human being, a generous man who could be both strong and vulnerable, a good orator and a lovable leader. But was he actually the truly secular, democratic leader he is made out to be? An enigma he will remain.