25 December 2010
The man who turns foes into friends
In times of hate and distrust flowing free in the Indian skies, Atal Bihari Vajpayee emerges as an icon of faith and harmony. He enters his 87th year today. Years of struggle, poetry, an all-encompassing politics, nationalism’s best foot forward — he stands out the tallest among all we see today.
He was my first editor. The paper I edited for almost two decades was shaped by his editorials and guidance. In 1948, when a young Atal Bihari was a pracharak, a dedicated full-time worker of the RSS, his mentor, Bhaurao Deoras, gave him the responsibility to edit Panchjanaya with Gyanendra Saxena. Atal Bihari wrote his best editorials and poems, while Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya supervised the whole affair and strengthened his ideological moorings. The first headline of the issue that was edited by Atal Bihari was “Jammu Kashmir se samjhauta nahin hone denge (we will not allow any compromise on Jammu & Kashmir)".
I was the 13th editor in that line. The golden jubilee of Panchjanya saw its first founding editor as the Prime Minister of India and naturally he was requested to head the committee that was formed under the patronage of Rajju Bhayya and Swami Satyamitranandji. He agreed and all our programmes were held at Panchvati, including the awards ceremonies. He was our first reader too, of all issues.
He would appreciate or severely criticize anything he liked or disliked. I remember, he was very happy to see our special issues on Kashmir and then once we did an annual number on the reformist Hindu resurgence expressed through Swminarayan, Bharat Mata Mandirs, allowing all castes into the sanctum sanctorum, Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders like Ashok Singhal visiting Kashi’s Dom Raja (the head of the clan helping cremate dead bodies at cremation grounds, considered the "lowest" in the caste hierarchy) and sharing food with him. Atalji said that so much was happening among the Hindus in terms of walking in sync with the changing times, yet so less was reported; hence the special number must be widely circulated. He felt bad when on an issue of Swadeshi, we depicted Mother India being disrobed like Draupadi. The call came from the Prime Minister’s office. "Vijayji", as he would call me, "yeh kya chhap diya hai? Hum mar gayen hain kya? Bharat Mata ka aisa vidroop chitran kyon? (What have you published? Have we all died that Mother India is depicted in such a humiliating manner?)" And he hung up. That was a lesson we will never forget. He also forewarned us against launching personal attacks on any opposition leader, including Sonia Gandhi. Attack policies and programmes, but getting personal and petty should be avoided in media and politics. That was his advice.
He was against rhetorical noises and didn’t quite like demands for more slogans on Hindu pride in comparison with what Pakistan and Bangladesh do to minorities. His famous lines, in an interview with me, that any resurgence, born out of reaction, pushes you backwards, created a storm. He said: "Do say ‘Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain’" but add in the same breath, "Garv se kaho hum Bharatiya hain."
Atal Bihari Vajpayee still believes in using moderation, and not animosity, towards anyone and used a respectable language even for his worst political opponents. He was a master of using the art of understatement while expressing anger or displeasure. I remember when Maruti was being set up, he severely criticized Indira Gandhi and in his famous speech in Parliament, his one-liner "Beta car banata hai, ma bekaar banati hai (while the son makes cars, the mother creates unemployment)" became a hit. He fought against emergency’s draconian regime, suffered jail, and yet never hesitated to praise her on her achievement in the 1971 war. He is strong-willed. He never compromises. The way he did Pokharan II and withstood the pressures of western countries’ sanctions, his success in inspiring scientists to make an indigenous supercomputer, his leadership to have a grand Kargil victory and also, the first time in history, accorded due honours to martyrs and decorated soldiers show his mettle and grit. The highways connecting India’s nook and corner remain his best signature on India’s development radar. His trust in his colleagues, a legendary friendship with Advani, Narshimha Rao, Chandra Shekhar, is a story for another chapter. With victory in the Gujarat and Maharashtra state elections in March 1995, during the BJP session in Mumbai in November 1995, it was the then BJP President LK Advani who declared that Vajpayee would be the Prime Minister of India if the BJP won the next parliamentary elections in May 1996. That was prophetic indeed.
It is his charisma that created a sense of trust and bondage with all the neighbouring countries. His tenures as foreign minister and Prime Minister are remembered in the neighbourhood as the best and most amicable ones. If Pervez Musharraf had not aborted the peace process by removing Nawaz Sharif at pistol point, many believed Atal Bihari Vajpayee would have solved the Kashmir issue too.
This year while we were in Srinagar to observe Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s martyrdom day, the first time in the last 53 years, top Kashmiri leaders of all walks and ideologies, shared one common line: "If the government in Delhi had followed Atalji’s path, Kashmir won't have boiled over to this extent." His name, charisma and words, and his impromptu speech at Srinagar, still weave magic in the valley.
Kind and affectionate, he would bend the rules for a just cause. In 1995, when Parliament was stalled by the opposition, he was approached by the president of the National Federation of the Blind, Mr Roongta, to let the House run for a day so that the Disabilities Act could be passed. Mr Roongta reminisces, at that time Sushma Swaraj was also sitting in the committee room, and Atalji, without thinking twice told Sushmaji, let's have the House run just for this act and come back. The Disabilities Act was passed, benefiting millions of disabled citizens with Atalji’s support, and was also implemented in the best way in BJP-ruled states, especially in Rajasthan, under Vasundhara Raje’s governance.
He loved children. Ritwik, my son, got special attention and since he needed a care that would help him come up with confidence, he saw to it that he got admission to the best school specially designed for him.
He did have his share of brickbats. His best interviews by me, collected and published in a pictorial book being released today in Parliament House, contain his bleeding heart's pains and anguish, expressed in this line: "Apno ke vighnon ne ghera (I am hurt more by those who said they were mine)." But he emerged taller after each such instance. He never speaks a single line in criticism of even those who attack him ruthlessly.
That is the real "ajatshatru" (one who is without any enemies). Atalji, the man who turns foes into friends, still has that miracle in his name. May he live a hundred and more springs. Happy birthday, Atalji.