Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a large-hearted leader, always civil and never afraid to take tough decisions for India
Barmer had suffered devastating floods in 2006, and as the MP representing the constituency, I was involved in relief operations. Pranab Mukherjee, as Defence Minister in the United Progressive Alliance government, had accompanied Sonia Gandhi, then Congress president, for a survey to take stock of the operations. A district administration briefing was planned in Barmer for them, and as soon as they arrived Ms. Gandhi told me, in earshot of mediapersons, “Your MLA has behaved very badly with me.” Unaware of what had happened, I nevertheless apologised with folded hands “on behalf of everyone”, including the MLA, who like me belonged to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). That little apology made it to a tiny news story, which in turn reached Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then already in retirement from politics. He sent me a thank you message, the first and only one I received from him, “for maintaining Indian traditions, culture and our dignity”.
A dignified man
It was this civility and dignity that marked Vajpayee’s life and politics, and which seems completely at odds with the prevailing political culture of today. His endearing manner, display of affection and quality of giving earned him respect all around, including from the Opposition. His easy manner was reflected in his ready smile and a wink, and it kept debates from escalating into confrontation. His mannerisms, including his long pauses, were easy to interpret as earnest. Yet, he would not shirk from the toughest decisions — in calls he took for India, he revealed the steel in him that his amiable persona often cloaked. There were two decisions that he took during his prime ministership (1998-2004) that helped change India completely; they still define India today. In taking them he demonstrated the willingness to take the bull by the horns. On May 11, 1998, India began a two-stage series of nuclear tests that changed the way the world perceived decision-making in New Delhi. To top it off, de facto nuclearisation was claimed as a policy, giving nightmares to economists and policymakers. Vajpayee had factored it all in, including the likely course of Pakistan’s reactive tests and the effect of sanctions on both countries, before giving the green signal. From that moment, the global attitude towards India began to change, and it defined India’s rise.
The second decision has changed India internally — it was the launch of the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY). Unlike the much celebrated ‘Golden Quadrilateral’ and the expansion of other highways undertaken on his watch as Prime Minister, it is the PMGSY that has completely altered the lives of farmers in India’s far-flung villages and hamlets. For the first time they came to be connected to markets through a motorable road, thus bypassing middlemen who had always controlled access. Till date, it remains India’s only pure data-driven scheme, unalterable by political pressure. Both decisions were game-changers for India.
Vajpayee’s birth in Gwalior on December 25, 1924 to Krishna Devi and Krishna Bihari Vajpayee, and his subsequent upbringing and education are well documented. His early influences from Arya Samaj and then the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) are just as well known. His full-time commitment to the RSS, and subsequent secondment to the Jana Sangh, brought him in contact with Syama Prasad Mookerjee. The political graph was only upwards from there, bringing him appreciation from India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who prophesied that one day Vajpayee would lead the country. But before he became Prime Minister, Vajpayee cut his teeth as India’s first non-Congress External Affairs Minister (1977-79) in the Janata Party government, and provided a glimpse of his future direction.
By the time he became Foreign Minister, Pakistan had been defeated in war, divided into two, and was headed for another round of military rule. Despite all that, he launched persistent efforts with Pakistan, beginning with a visit to the neighbouring country. This was to remain the foreign policy theme through his tenure as Prime Minister. It drew from a realisation that India would never be able to earn its place under the sun unless it made peace with Pakistan.
But doing business with Pakistan was never easy. After the bitter rhetoric of the 1998 nuclear tests, there was the euphoria of the bus journey to Lahore in 1999. A little-known fact about the bus trip is that as it crossed the Radcliffe Line at Wagah, the Border Security Force was playing Daler Mehndi’s Punjabi pop hit ‘Sade naal rahoge to aish karoge’ (If you stay with us, you’ll do well). Obviously it was a message lost on Pakistan, which thereafter responded with the intrusions in Kargil that led to a brief but bitter war that summer. Vajpayee held his nerve and didn’t waver despite adverse military conditions in the early days. Eventually India won a military victory as well global goodwill, a rare double achievement. Years later, I was the first Indian journalist to meet Nawaz Sharif, who had been Prime Minister of Pakistan during the Kargil war, when he was in exile in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He said: “Mr. Vajpayee is justified in feeling let down, we did let him down.”
1. Confrontation: (noun)
Meaning: an earnest effort for superiority or victory over another
Synonyms: ball game, battle, combat, competition, conflict, contention, contest, dogfight, duel, face-off, grapple, match, rivalry, strife, struggle, sweepstakes (also sweep-stake), tug-of-war, war, warfare
Antonyms: concord, harmony, peace
2. Earnest: (adjective)
Meaning: not joking or playful in mood or manner
Synonyms: grave, humorless, no-nonsense, sedate, serious, severe, sober, solemn, staid, uncomic, unsmiling, weighty
Antonyms: facetious, flip, flippant, humorous, jesting, jocular, joking, playful
3. Amiable: (adjective)
Meaning: having an easygoing and pleasing manner especially in social situations
Synonyms: affable, agreeable, genial, good-natured, good-tempered, gracious, mellow, nice, pleasant, sweet, well-disposed
Antonyms: disagreeable, ill-natured, ill-tempered, unamiable, ungenial, ungracious, unpleasant
4. Cloak: (verb)
Meaning: to keep secret or shut off from view
Synonyms: belie, blanket, blot out, conceal, cover, curtain, disguise, enshroud, hide, mask, obscure, occult, paper over, screen, shroud, suppress, veil
Antonyms: bare, disclose, display, divulge, expose, reveal, show, uncloak, uncover, unmask, unveil
5. Hamlet: (noun)
Meaning: a small residential settlement
Synonyms: vill, village, whistle-stop
6. Secondment: (noun)
Meaning: the temporary transfer of an official or worker to another position or employment.
7. Prophesy: (verb)
Meaning: to tell of or describe beforehand
Synonyms: augur, call, forecast, foretell, predict, presage, prognosticate, read
Antonyms: describe, narrate, recite, recount, relate, report, tell
Meaning: to show uncertainty about the right course of action
Synonyms: balance, dither, falter, halt, hang back, hesitate, scruple, stagger, teeter, vacillate, wobble
Antonyms: dive (in), plunge (in)
9. Intrusions: the action of intruding.
Meaning: to cause a disruption in a conversation or discussion
Synonyms: break in, chime in, cut in, interpose, interrupt
Antonyms: avoid, eschew, shun, disregard, ignore, neglect, overlook
10.Cut one’s teeth: (Idiom)
Meaning: acquire initial practice or experience of a particular sphere of activity.
Usage: He cut his teeth flying model airplanes as a child, so aeronautical engineering came naturally.