Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Poet-Politician-Patriot

By Yatindra Bhatnagar

India has lost one of the finest politicians of our times. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was not only an accomplished parliamentarian, an impressive orator, an ardent nationalist and a proud patriot, he was also a sensitive poet and a sincere friend. He not only befriended his political colleagues of different parties, but also many journalists and common people.

94-year-old Vajpayee, had retired in 2005 but his advice and his darshan were sought by many who could manage it. Many leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani were very close to him. A life-long bachelor, Vajpayee was a father figure for many. He was the first non-Congress Prime Minister to complete his full five-year term.

Vajpayee was an undisputed leader and carved his own path. He would never stoop to lower levels in debate in Parliament or in public. Being a leader of a Hindu party, he was more secular than many politicians. Though one of the staunchest supporters of building Shree Ram temple in Ayodhya, as Prime Minister, he unequivocally declared that it was NOT the role of the BJP to get the temple re-constructed.

My association with Vajpayee and Advani dates to 1952 when they both were junior politicians and I, a junior journalist.  India had the first general elections and I covered a part of it. In 1971 under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, India went to war with Pakistan and helped in liberating Bangladesh. Vajpayee, as the leader of the then Bharatiya Janasangh, had no hesitation in declaring in the Parliament unhesitatingly: “Today, there is only one undisputed leader in the country – and that is Shrimati Indira Gandhi.”

Vajpayee was a mature politician and an ungrudging admirer of a rival leader who achieved a remarkable victory for India. He was quite informal, always upfront, clear, convincing and impressive in what he said and did not beat about the bush or left us confused. He had a good sense of humor and sometimes he would regale us with his poems.

During Janata Party’s election campaign in 1977 he compared his party’s meetings with Indira Gandhi’s.  He used to say: she has the crowds at her meetings, we have the audience. Vajpayee was for ALL Indians, irrespective of religions, castes and communities, though he was himself a Brahmin. It pained him immensely when during the election campaign of 1980 with Babu Jagjivan Ram as the leader of the Janata Party, at several meetings he heard people murmuring against a ‘Dalit’ being projected as the future Prime Minister.

No doubt Indira Gandhi and her Congress Party won the 1980 elections, partly because a majority of Indians were still not reconciled to a ‘lower caste’ politician as their Prime Minister. Jagjivan Ram was one of the ablest ministers in the federal government, and probably the finest Defense Minister India ever had. The other reason was the then President N. Sanjeeva Reddy from the Janata Party though the Congress had maneuvered to defeat him and got an ‘independent candidate’ VV Giri elected to the highest office.  

Reddy, first refused to invite Jagjivan Ram to form the government after Gandhi withdrew support from Charan Singh. Janata Party remained the single largest party, and its leader, Jagjivan Ram had the right to be invited to form the government, but Reddy decided against it. He dissolved the Parliament (Lok Sabha) and ultimately Indira Gandhi and her Congress party were the winners.

India has come up a long way since, but politics is still dominated by religion, caste and group consideration and reservations demanded and fought for. This is mainly to garner votes, not for doing anything solid to improve the condition of those ‘backward’ people and that’s the politics of votes that Atal Bihari Vajpayee never liked or supported.

I relocated to the United States and for years did not have direct contact with him, but Vajpayee did not forget our association. On one occasion when he was the Leader of Opposition, and I was the Editor of India Post in the Bay Area, I called him, and he graciously gave me a phone interview.

Yatindra Bhatnagar has worked as a journalist for more than seven decades in journalism with newspapers in India and the US and also as a radio and TV broadcaster. He has written 20 books, including Bangladesh, Birth of a Nation; Mujib, the Architect of Bangladesh; Australiana, a Visit to Remember; Korean Experience; Autumn Leaves (a collection of poems) and others in Hindi and English. He lives in Los Angeles and visits his daughter Seema Suneja who lives in Katy.