It was the summer of 1996. The Congress government of Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao had lost the general election and, for the first time, there was an opportunity for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), headed by the moderate and well-liked Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to take power. He lacked parliamentary majority but nevertheless made the bid to form a government and become Prime Minister — an ambition that he had long nurtured but which seemed elusive despite being in public life as a popular leader for long.
The moment it became clear that Vajpayee would be the man to lead the next government in India, I made a beeline to his house at 5 Raisina Road which was almost a stone’s throw from the Press Club of India. Vajpayee was a people’s man and security was light around him those days. I and a colleague, Mayank Chhaya, opened the gates of his bungalow and walked in to his secretary’s office. I asked his aides if he was busy. One of them pointed outside the window.
There, standing all by himself, in an inconspicuous corner of the bungalow, seemingly staring into space, was the man of the moment — in his trademark starched white dhoti and collarless kurta — who would be the Prime Minister of India in a few days. We congratulated him. He smiled and ushered us in. Vajpayee had often wondered aloud whether he would forever remain prime minister-in-waiting as the BJP, with its hardline Hindu nationalist ideology, was not a popular favourite of the country then. But Vajpayee, with his affable personality, riveting oratory, an image of moderation and with friends across parties was one name that was being talked about as an acceptable alternative for those who were getting increasingly disillusioned with the corruption-tainted Congress.
Vajpayee, then 71, and the BJP, did form the government, but it lasted only 13 days in his first stint at governance. He never had the numbers and made his resignation announcement almost offhandedly after two days of divisive debate on a confidence motion. The motion was never put to vote as its result was foregone. Even the BJP’s opponents then paid tribute to the party for not attempting any horse-trading. The voluntary resignation improved the BJP’s, and Vajpayee’s stock among the people and the party returned to power in 1998 for a longer term of 13 months, but with some non-BJP support, its first shot at forming a coalition government with parties whose ideologies were not necessarily aligned with the BJP’s.
“If you want to form a government leaving us out, I don’t see any signs of its stability,” Vajpayee told Parliament presciently. “The birth is difficult, and after the birth, survival is difficult. For everything, you have to run to the Congress.” But in the short 13-month term of the second Vajpayee government, he made his mark by making India a declared nuclear weapon power, authorising a series of five nuclear tests in the Pokhran desert of Rajasthan, a shock event that was followed by tit-for-tat tests by Pakistan.
Vajpayee’s best years were no doubt his third government of 1999-2004, when he formed the first National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition, carrying parties with disparate ideologies along under the umbrella of a progressive, market-oriented, pro-US, politically moderate agenda that the party hardliners did not like but which made its mark internationally and raised India’s stock in the global order.
I made several trips with Vajpayee, as part of his media delegation, from the Caribbean to China, from the US to Pakistan, and he always found time to meet leading editors in his cabin on board Air India One and get feedback on his trip and on his policies. But the most unforgettable experience with Vajpayee would be, no doubt, in the winter of 1992, a few days after the apocalyptic Babri Masjid demolition by Hindu zealots in Ayodhya. Sitting in an inner room of his Raisina Road residence, a visibly anguished Vajpayee, in one of his life’s most candid interviews, called the Ayodhya action as the “worst miscalculation” and a “misadventure” and conceded that voices of moderation were overruled by hardliners.
Vajpayee admitted — much against the claims of his own party — that the BJP had failed to honour “solemn assurances” to the Supreme Court, Parliament and Prime Minister Narasimha Rao that the mosque would not be touched during the December 6 “kaar seva” by Hindu activists.
“Moderates have no place,” he lamented to IANS, adding with a resigned air, “Who’s going to listen to the voice of sanity?” However, he ruled out quitting the party, saying he had a lifelong association with it and “when the ship is facing a storm, you don’t desert”. Asked how, despite having been projected as a prime ministerial candidate as far back then, he had chosen to compromise on his convictions, Vajpayee replied, “I have waited too long (to be Prime Minister).”
Many of his party people, and even journalists, had decried the headline-grabbing interview and had even slyly suggested that it may have been contrived. But Vajpayee kept a dignified silence on the issue and, when I confronted him at the party’s National Executive meet in Kolkata some weeks later about what people were saying, he cryptically shot back: “Have I said anything?” That said it all.
Vajpayee was a man of values, who decried the divisive ideology of sections of his partymen; he had a vision for the country and sought its rightful place in the comity of nations; but he remained till the end — as his opponents often taunted — the right man in the wrong party for India.