An astute politician who aspired to be a statesman, former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was not without inconsistencies, says Vinod Mehta in ‘Lucknow Boy’
In 1999, the third BJP-led coalition in four years came to power. As far as numbers were concerned, both the party (with 182 seats) and the coalition (with 296 seats) seemed comfortably placed. Instead of the troublesome Jayalalithaa, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had the less troublesome Karunanidhi inside the tent. The pundits predicted a full term for Mr Vajpayee and his coalition. Atalji mostly got the cabinet of his choice, with Jaswant Singh—humiliatingly barred by RSS in the 13-month 1998 coalition—as foreign minister.
My relations with Vajpayee were very good. I had known him since my Debonair days. When I moved to Delhi in 1991, I had several opportunities to meet him socially and officially. He was leader of Opposition and I often found myself sitting next to him at banquets. He didn’t say much, but listened with interest. Like Ronald Reagan, he loved jokes. He was not overly humble, but neither was he pompous. He knew his own worth and therefore did not need to prove anything.
Since I was a self-confessed pseudo-secularist and vocal about it, most BJP politicians kept me at arm’s length. Not Atalji. Perhaps, he was a pseudo-secularist too! I used to go over for tea, with appointments easily fixed through his personable press officer, Ashok Tandon. Once when I went to see him, he looked uncharacteristically glum. I asked him if anything was wrong. Aap ke baad Jayalalithaa aayengi. (After you, Jayalalithaa is coming.) And then he laughed for the first time.
Mr Vajpayee, not the most media-friendly of politicians, gave me a rare, extended interview in early 1999, just after the fall of his government. He sincerely believed that if any prime minister could make peace with Pakistan, it was a BJP prime minister like him. He would give the example of how a hard-line Republican president in the US, Richard Nixon, was able to achieve a breakthrough with China. I asked him if being a poet helped him keep his cool.
“Yes,” he replied. “They say about Ram that the expression on his face when he was going to be enthroned and when he heard he was going into exile for fourteen years was the same.”
Mr Vajpayee’s poetry presented me with a little difficulty. When I was editor of Pioneer, a slim volume of his poems had been published. I gave it to the eminent Hindi writer Nirmal Verma to review. He kept the book for some time but sent no review. Finally, he rang up to say he couldn’t do it. “The poems are not worth reviewing. They are the work of a well-meaning amateur. If I review it, I’ll have to slam it, which I don’t want to do.” I asked one or two other big names in Hindi literature. They also refused for the same reasons. Eventually, I got it reviewed in-house by Kanchan Gupta, who later joined Vajpayee’s PMO as speech-writer. He produced the goods.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was no saint. He liked to drink moderately and eat non-vegetarian food less moderately. Being a bachelor and a political star (Henry Kissinger: power is the ultimate aphrodisiac), he was never short of female company.
When he became India’s first bachelor prime minister, he juggled a strange domestic life.
A Mrs Kaul, whose husband was a college professor and had passed away, moved into 7 Race Course Road, along with her daughter Namita and the daughter’s husband, Ranjan. Namita’s official designation was foster daughter and Ranjan Bhattacharya became foster son-in-law. Vajpayee, to his credit, made no effort to hide the ménage à quatre.
Foreign journalists posted in Delhi would ask, tongue firmly in cheek, why the brave and fearless Indian press never wrote about Vajpayee’s unusual family arrangement. I would say it was our strength, not weakness, which dissuaded us from tabloid voyeurism.
A.B. Vajpayee’s PMO fell into the hands of three individuals. Brajesh Mishra, who had been India’s permanent representative at the UN between 1979 and 1981 and on deputation with the United Nations till 1987, was his closest aide.
Mishra took an anti-Soviet line in the UN when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. That line was sought to be reversed when the Congress came back to power in 1980. Brajesh argued that it did not behove India to suddenly change its stance, but Indira Gandhi insisted. He put in his papers.
Vajpayee and Brajesh were chums. When things got hot for the ‘moderate face’ of the BJP inside the party, he would pop off to New York to spend time with Brajesh, doing, rumour had it, some naughty things.
Mishra roped N.K. Singh, a suave bureaucrat, into the PMO as officer on special duty for economic affairs. The third member of the trio was Ranjan Bhattacharya, Vajpayee’s foster son-in-law. His background? The hospitality business or more accurately the banqueting business in luxury hotels.
During Vajpayee’s final term, this trio took complete charge. They controlled the PMO. Atalji, never keen on matters of detail, blessed the arrangement by not interfering. However, he had a fair sense of what was going on. The trio, especially Brajesh Mishra, was detested in the BJP.
The feeling was mutual. L.K. Advani, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Narendra Modi watched helplessly as Brajesh marched imperiously to his own tune.
There was no love lost, especially between Mishra and Advani. Vajpayee made it clear to the party and the RSS that he was prepared to make compromises in most areas, but not over Brajesh, whom both the BJP and the RSS wanted out. If the parivar insisted on Brajesh going, Vajpayee would go with him.
There are not many politicians I like on a personal basis. Vajpayee was one of the few I did. History, I suspect, will remember him with question marks. Was he a liberal conservative, or someone who put his finger up in the air to find out which way the wind was blowing?
A politician who aspires to be a statesman needs to have a moral centre. Did Vajpayee have one? Fali Nariman told me that despite all of Vajpayee’s inconsistencies he “liked the old boy”. I’ll ditto Fali’s opinion.
The late Vinod Mehta was the founder editor-in-chief of Outlook. Excerpted with permission from Lucknow Boy by Vinod Mehta published by Penguin India