Atal Bihari Vajpayee - The giant of a man, gentle inside

Aug 17, 2018, 08:03 IST | AS Dulat

From Day One, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was clear about two things: the permanent confrontation with Pakistan had to end and, in Kashmir, we need to move forward and find a solution

Atal Bihari Vajpayee - The giant of a man, gentle inside
Vajpayee waves from inside the newly launched Delhi-Lahore bus on February 28, 1999. Pic/Getty Images

AS DulatI haven't seen many prime ministers closely; the ones I really saw and knew closely were Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Dr Manmohan Singh. But if we take all the prime ministers since Independence, I would rate Vajpayee the greatest second only to Jawaharlal Nehru. And there were a lot of commonalities between the two, if you look into their character and personality. I may be wrong, but that's the way I perceive it.

Vajpayee was a politician par excellence. He was as close to Chanakya as you get, but he never gave that impression. He was a mesmerising orator; nobody in India can come anywhere near him. He understood human beings, which is a great attribute, and he was a gem of a human being himself. It was a privilege to have seen him closely, to have worked with him. Those of us in the PMO who had interacted with him, were treated like family. And we felt like family. In his family, they used to call him baap-ji, and that's how we too used to refer to him.

I think the high watermark of his prime ministership was his visit to Lahore. The first time I met the man, I realised he had two things clear in his mind: the permanent confrontation with Pakistan had to end and, in Kashmir, we need to move forward.

In Kashmir, they think of him as god; he is revered. If you ask a Kashmiri today, he will tell you he would pray for Vajpayee. Even the most hardened cynic would think of him that way. If you call up (separatist leader Syed) Geelani-saab and ask him, he would say the same.

He would get elected unopposed from Srinagar if it was possible for him to contest from there. And if Kashmiris could give Hindu names to their children, a lot of them would have been Atal Bihari today.

Lahore masterstroke
Kashmir and Pakistan remained at the centre throughout his tenure. I don't think many prime ministers got the opportunity to visit Pakistan, but his visit to Lahore was incredible. Here is a man who went to Lahore just because his heart told him to go — I don't think his party approved, I don't think Nagpur approved, but he went anyway, because that is what he felt was right.

And what he did in Lahore was even more amazing. He took the Pakistanis by surprise. He arrived in Lahore in the evening, and there was a banquet for him by Pervez Musharraf in the Lahore Court with great fanfare and the best food.

That, of course, was planned, but the next morning Vajpayee told them he wanted to go to Minar-e-Pakistan. The Pakistanis were taken by surprise. They were worried about what would happen there. And they thought he might go there and say 'Le liya Pakistan, banwa diya Bangladesh, etc'. He did nothing of that sort. He went there quietly and he wrote in the visitors' book that a strong and stable Pakistan is in India's best interest.

That was followed in the afternoon, before he came back to Dehli, by a reception at the Governor's House. There, he said something quite remarkable. He said 'my party people will say, it was okay, you wanted to go to Lahore, but what was the need to go to Minar-e-Pakistan? Was it necessary to give your stamp of approval?' and Vajpayee was supposed to have said 'I will tell them this is Pakistan's own seal, they don't need our approval.' I am told the whole crowd gave him a standing ovation.

Insaniyat ke daire mein
The Kargil attack, Parliament and the hijacking of IC 814 all happened in his tenure, but nothing ruffled him. Of course, no prime minister likes these things to happen, but he was never ruffled. He never thought he needed to change policy. He was a man of conviction and belief. He was also a philosopher and a poet. In Kashmir, he made that famous Insaniyat ke daire mein statement and spoke about 'insaniyat, Kashmiryat and jamhooriyat' and said in his 2002 Independence Day speech that we will ensure the elections in Kashmir are free and fair.

In the end, he was never close to a solution to the Kashmir solution. He only began the process. It was handed over to Dr Manmohan Singh on a platter. The beginnings had been made and Dr Singh took it much further. But unfortunately, he couldn't finish it. This is the tragedy of India-Pakistan relations.

Gentle Giant
I was nowhere in the picture when the nuclear tests were done, but knowing Vajpayee, he would have done it with great pride. He was not one to hesitate or dither. That was a moment of great pride to him. I was not involved in his domestic policy decisions, but the feeling was that of a leader with supreme confidence. I have seen very few leaders with the kind of confidence that that man had.

I remember once Mamata Banerjee stormed out of a cabinet meeting and soon after that, I remember Vajpayee coming back from a trip abroad. Ministers who wished to receive the prime minister queued up at the airport. Mamata, would normally touch his feet, was first in line. As she started to bow, the great man gave her a hug and that was the end of all her grievances.

He knew how to handle all these disparate politicians. He understood human nature. I think his only possible regret was Gujarat. He had spoken about it. In fact, in his 2002 Independence Day speech, he spoke about communal violence, saying what happened in Gujarat is not acceptable. He said it was necessary to rise above the four walls of communalism, and to detach ourselves from everything that divides us. He called the communal violence of Gujarat an unfortunate development that had no place in a civilised society.

He spoke little, but understood everything; he was a giant of a man, but very gentle inside. India will always miss Vajpayee. We won't see the likes of Vajpayee in a hurry now.

As told to Krishnakumar Padmanabhan
AS Dulat is a former spy chief who served in the Vajpayee PMO

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