Atal Bihari Vajpayee

Raman Swamy

Millions of eyes turned moist on Thursday evening when the news came that Atal Bihari Vajpayee had passed away.  Millions of memories and personal anecdotes were shared in hushed voices all over the land.  Millions of hearts were touched by the sorrow of bereavement, akin to the pain of losing someone near and dear. 

That is how the human race spontaneously reacts when the invisible light emanating from a truly towering personality are finally switched off. It does not matter that for the last nine years of his life, Atalji remained in splendid isolation due to having been laid low by a stroke that extinguished both his political career and his creative pursuits.

Despite the fact that he was neither seen nor heard by the legions of his followers and admirers, his presence was always palpable. It was almost as if invisible electro-magnetic waves continued to emanate from him to provide guidance and consolation to a nation in which he had aroused so much hope.

Vajpayee had that indescribable aura around him throughout his active political life –a vibrant fire glowed softly inside him that warmed everybody who knew him, whether from close quarters like his colleagues and contemporaries or across great distances like the lakhs of citizens who had never set eyes on him or heard the poetic crescendo of his oratory. 

It is often said that if everybody likes you, then there is probably something wrong with you.  There may have been many things about Atalji’s personality and personal predilections that might have been deemed as deserving of disapproval in a lesser personage – but taken as a whole his virtues and vices were what elevated him to the level of one of the greatest statesmen of modern India.

His outstanding quality was his ability to avoid the fatal flaw that has been the downfall of many a tall figure in history – the arrogance of power. In a sense his strongest weak-points were compassion and tolerance. This often infuriated his own comrades who viewed it as a readiness to compromise when firmness was called for, a tendency to waffle when the need was for clarity and a preference for forbearance rather than go for the kill.  

This is probably why Vajpayee won less acclaim from his own political parivar than from his adversaries. Wise men throughout history have been known to invite the wrath of their own flock while in the process of disarming their foes with charm, humour and kindness. 

Much has been written about Vajpayee’s eloquence and oratory, his passion and poetry and his wit and wisdom.  Now that he is no more, many more will sing the praises of his extraordinary gift of the gab and his statesmanlike leadership qualities.   

Yet, during his years at the helm, as Prime Minister for a total of six years in three consecutive episodes,  it was the RSS ideogugue Govindacharya who labeled him as a ‘mukhauta’ and it was his own Cabinet colleagues led by his own trusted lieutenant LK Advani who plotted to dethrone him and whose coup attempt failed when he told them with delicious and devastating wit that he was “neither tired not retired”. 

There lay his singular brilliance – he could say in a rapier-sharp epigram what others would need a whole speech to convey.  He could also speak for a full hour and hold the audience spellbound without actually revealing what was in his mind regarding a policy issue or political position. 

This was often mistaken for waffling – but the truth is that the quality to see both sides and the willingness to be embrace any eventuality is the hallmark of a genuine leader, which is a trait sadly lacking in some who preside over the destines of a diverse country of over a billion human beings belonging to a wide spectrum of faiths, beliefs, customs and socio-economic needs and aspirations.

Indeed, Atalji once articulated his own philosophy by saying: “Kinchit nahin bhaybhit main, Kartavya path par jo bhi mile, Yeh bhi sahi woh bhi sahi”.  He meant what he said – he was not afraid of defeat and victory, whatever came his way of duty, he accepted it.   Above all, he instinctively perceived the ultimate reality of humankind – that “this is true and that is true”.

His critics invariably misinterpreted the “Yeh bhi sahi, woh bhi sahi” approach to be a sign of prevarication and even moral cowardice. How little they knew.  

He was also accused within the Sangh parivar of soft-pedaling the Hindutva doctrine and being too lenient of the views of secular parties.  When asked by a reporter about the damage this could cause to the image of his party, Vajpayee’s reply was typical of him -  “Secularists like you”, he told the questioner, “need not spend sleepless nights over this;  I will carry the secular baggage on my broad shoulders”.

When he wanted to, he had a knack of diluting the gravity of even the most profound issues.  Once, when asked whether he feared death, he asked:  'Maut Ki Umra Kya hai, Do Pal Bhi Nahi'.

This level of thinking was what raised him above the crowd.  But although he was aware of his special gifts and tasted great success in his life, humility remained his primary trait.  "Mere Prabhu! Mujhe itani oonchaai kabhi mat dena, Gairon ko gale na lagaa sakoon, Itani rukhaai kabhi mat dena".   

On a different occasion he was quoted as saying:  "Swayam ko doosron ki drishti se main dekh paataa hoon, na main chup hoon na gaataa hoon". 

Other words of wisdom are scattered among his numerous writings and public utterances – and many of these will surely be repeated and extolled much more after his demise than perhaps during his leftime.  Here are a few examples: 

 "Kyon na main kshan kshan ko jioon? Kan-kan mein bikhare saundarya ko pioon?"  and “Hone, na hone ka kram, Isi tarah chalta rahega, Hum hain, hum rahenge, Yeh bhram bhi sadaa paltaa rahega".

He also once said, only half-jokingly, “Someday I will become an ex-prime minister, but I will never become an ex-poet!” 

However, he must have known that his fame as the Bhishma Pitamah of Indian politics will live long after his departure.  He certainly was aware that not all who come after him will have his vision and compassion, particularly future leaders trained in the same RSS sakhas that he was. Which is why he said with deathly seriousness and uncanny foresight - “The question is not of ‘Right’ and ‘Left’; the core issue really is Democracy versus Totalitarianism”. 

Aug 18, 2018

Raman Swamy [email protected]

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