The Former Prime Minister: Atal Bihari Vajpayee Whose Stories Always Had A Sting In The Tail
There are some impressions that persist. My abiding impression of Atal Bihari Vajpayee was that he was never in a hurry. The picture of him walking unhurriedly through the corridors of Parliament, lazily greeting admirers who rushed to him; ambling slowly to the microphone to address an election meeting in some distant small town in northern India.
Vajpayee’s speeches were legendary. A visit to Shahid Minar in Kolkata as a 15-year-old to hear him address a Jana Sangh meeting. Vajpayee was late and I had to return, bitterly disappointed.He was seeking volunteers for a national jail-bharo programme organised by the Jana Sangh demanding the government recognise Bangladesh. “Come to jail for a day”, he advised the Marwaris, “I promise to provide you cups of steaming coffee.” don’t know if they responded but it set out Vajpayee from other over-earnest netas.
Some have imagined Vajpayee made a controversially provocative speech to a BJP meeting held on December 5, 1992, the day before the historic kar seva in Ayodhya, an event that redefined politics and brought the BJP to power. I was at that Lucknow meeting with my friend Chandan Mitra. The question uppermost in people’s minds that tense evening was whether BJP would scale up its mobilisation in Ayodhya or signal a lowering of the political temperature.
Vajpayee addressed the issue with characteristic ambiguity. He had been to Ayodhya that morning, he told his audience. There were lots of people in the town. There was a lot of jostling and people were getting pushed around. He wondered what would happen if more people went there.
Vajpayee’s oratory was legendary. He had the ability to craft a compelling story out of nothing and hold his audiences spellbound. What people looked out for was not what he spoke on but whether there was the usual small sting in the tail. The national council meeting in Jaipur just prior to the 1991 election when the talk was of an impending Ram toofan. “The problem with a toofan”, he rued, “is that we have to be careful not to get blown over ourselves.” Then, with the cryptic tone the party had come to associate with him, added: “The BJP is not a dharma sabha. It is a political party.” The remarks said it all.
Vajpayee climbed the political ladder on the strength of his oratory, his reputation as a parliamentarian and his reputation for being above doctrinaire politics. In political circles he was projected as flexible, an attribute he may have acquired in the days Jana Sangh/BJP had no understandings with other non-Congress parties. It was this plus the ability to attract incremental votes that saw him being recalled to a leadership role in 1996, after a 12-year spell on the sidelines.
Was this reputation justified? I will leave the answer open. Vajpayee was a shrewd judge of mood and quickly adapted. He invariably responded to feelings on the ground. There was nothing doctrinaire about either his alleged liberalism or his supposed hardline Hindu nationalism. Vajpayee responded to situations.
One thing is certain: he was steeped in the values and traditions of the movement he was nurtured in.
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