Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who passed away in New Delhi on Thursday, was an extraordinary political leader who exemplified decency in public life. He was an icon whose memory will never fade away--a statesman who had few parallels in the world.
Vajpayee was an able administrator, a deeply impactful orator and a sensitive poet. It was his penchant for evolving consensus that led to a successful political career and a brilliant stewardship of the country as prime minister which is remembered and appreciated by his political adversaries as much as by his party-men.
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Atalji thrice served as the Prime Minister of India, first for a term of 13 days in 1996, then for a period of 11 months from 1998 to 1999, and finally for a full term from 1999 to 2004. The coalition that he led at the Centre for a full term reflected his ability to weld together 13 parties in a coalition experiment that set the path for future coalitions in Indian politics. The BJP, which was until then treated as a pariah among parties, came to be respected under his dynamic and congenial but firm leadership.
When Vajpayee was conferred the country’s highest civilian honour - the Bharat Ratna in 2015 - accolades were showered on him by the entire galaxy of leaders within the country and abroad.
Atalji lent lustre to India’s image in international forums, mesmerising audiences with his powerful and persuasive oratory. When India exploded a nuclear device in Pokharan in the desert of Rajasthan, there were criticisms voiced abroad but he took them in his stride without losing his cool.
His ‘bus diplomacy’ when he took along a team to Pakistan for peace talks was much acclaimed. But to the Pakistan Army peace, which was not on their terms, was anathema and the army promptly sabotaged it.
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When India discovered that the Pakistanis had established bases in thesnow-clad Kargil heights, Atalji was firm and decisive in throwing the aggressor out lock stock and barrel.
Atalji was a member of the Indian Parliament for over four decades, being elected to the Lok Sabha 10 times, and twice to the Rajya Sabha. When he was in the Rajya Sabha this writer met him in Vijaywada. In his trademark witty style, he said he was bored in the Upper House because the House was too sober and there were few theatrics.
During his career, Vajpayee served as a Member of Parliament from four states at different times, a record by itself reflecting his wide acceptability.Finally, Vajpayee retired from active politics in 2009 on health concerns when he was representing Lucknow.
Atalji was among the founding members of the erstwhile Bharatiya Jana Sangh which he also headed from 1968 to 1972. He was the Minister of External Affairs in the cabinet of Prime Minister Morarji Desai when, while his other Cabinet colleagues were wary of admitting that they consumed liquor, he was far from being a hypocrite and made no bones about his evening drink.
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Atalji’s mood swings were also a reflection of his abhorrence of hypocrisy. Once on an overseas run of State visits, this writer saw how he looked utterly bored and listless towards the fag end of his stint as prime minister in Copenhagen. His next stop was London where he was in his element, reciting his poems in his inimitable style with an audience of ethnic Indians. One felt that the old Atal Bihari Vajpayee was back in full form.
In today’s times of bad blood between ruling party and Opposition leaders and MPs and frequent unruly behaviour in Parliament, Atalji would have managed things with felicity. But after his retirement and partial paralysis which rendered him inactive he was not his former self.
But this great man of peace and congeniality would be remembered with great nostalgia. His contribution to public life would inspire generations. One only wishes his parliamentary life will inspire others to emulate him.