In a country rife with provincial politics, it is monumental of news when the central government of India in Delhi announced a seven-day mourning period throughout the country for the passing of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Vajpayee was one of India’s most admired politicians. There was no secret behind this mass appeal. It was just that he was simple, straightforward and honest.
If his inimitable oratory, repartee and ready wit tugged at the hearts of the masses, his patience and width of vision influenced the minds of many a head of the state. Whether it was international affairs or matters of national interest, Vajpayee spoke with authority. And he spoke without mincing his words, especially where criticism was due. In recognition to his services to the country, he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1992 and the Best Parliamentarian Award in 1994.
A skilled parliamentarian and statesman, he was born on December 25, 1925. Son of a poet and writer Krishna Bihari Vajpayee, his grandfather Shyam Lal Vajpayee was a Sanskrit scholar and poet. Vajpayee grew up in Gwalior and later moved to Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, to do his Masters in political science from Kanpur University.
He became a member of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and when the organisation decided to launch a monthly journal, he was asked to edit it. Simultaneously, he edited Panchjanya, the RSS mouthpiece and the daily Swadesh. As the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi witnessed a ban on RSS, Vajpayee went to Kashi and started editing a journal named Chetna. In 1953, he was posted to Delhi as the editor of a daily newspaper Veer Arjun.
Vajpayee was first elected to Parliament in 1957 from Balrampur in Uttar Pradesh. On the first day of the Parliament, although happy and apprehensive, he was given a back seat and denied the opportunity to speak due to the party’s strength in the House. Not one to let things pass, he made a suggestion by writing to the Speaker and the leader of the House, Jawaharlal Nehru. His request to pay homage to the martyrs of 1857 before the start of the proceedings was promptly accepted. Steadily, he made his way and excelled in foreign affairs. He was a Lok sabha MP from 1967-1984 and later a member of the Rajya Sabha.
His first stint as Prime Minister in 1977 lasted for 13 days. Subsequent elections saw him as Prime Minister again. This time the term lasted 13 months. The results of the 13th Lok Sabha elections in 1999, finally made him take oath of office for the third time.
Ever hawkish in vision, he blasted India out of its nuclear shackles by conducting the 1998 Pokharan tests and the next year waged war with Pakistan when its troops occupied the Kargil heights. And Vajpayee the Peacemaker, who was ever willing to talk to his enemies. He broke convention by travelling by bus to Lahore to greet his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif, shook hands in Agra with General Pervez Musharraf, who plotted Kargil and ousted Sharif in a coup soon after, and later flew to Beijing to sign a landmark agreement to sort out the border issue with China.
Vajpayee was fond of poetry. He first wrote poetry when he was in Grade 9. He had a few books in Hindi to his credit including Amar Aag Hai and Meri Ekavan Kavitayein.
Seeing technological revolutions and youngsters hands-on with the latest technology, in the early 2000s, Vajpayee had remarked, “I should have been younger at this stage. These are challenging times.”
He believed in changing with the times and felt modernisation was always for good. But a detached person as far as luxuries were concerned, he is known to have left the office immediately after his 13-month government fell. When an aide remarked, “What is the protocol?”, Vajpayee retorted, “What protocol? Let’s pack the bags and leave.”