This Liberal’s Heart Beats For Atal Bihari Vajpayee

POV

This Liberal’s Heart Beats For Atal Bihari Vajpayee

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

I

was eight when I fell in love with Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

It was around the time when he came to power for the first time in 1996 and went in for a trust vote in a mere 13 days. I rooted for him through the tedious Parliamentary proceedings, waited for his speech like a crazy fan awaits their favorite artists’ performance and cried bitter tears when he lost the trust vote despite rocking a speech that was one of the finest instances of how political discourse should be positioned in a democracy.

Vajpayee came to power again and went on to complete a near full term. That I remember that entire episode like a part of my personal history is a measure of the influence Vajpayee had as my childhood idol and the starring role he rightfully commands in some of my fondest childhood memories.

At ages 8 and 10, it did not matter to me what party came to power (although, even then I was pretty sure I was not a BJP person), so long as it was Vajpayee who became the leader of the nation. Given how BJP won all the elections in those times based on this “vyaktiwad” (worship of a personality) across country, I was not alone in that sentiment, however naïve and childish it may seem.

I was driving down the Bandra-Worli sea-link yesterday when I saw the Indian flag flying half-mast. And just like that, all the grief that I’d been keeping at bay, hit me with the force of a freight train.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee is no more. It is a profound, personal loss for me because, with him gone, it feels like I have lost one of the most precious links to my childhood, the tenuous connect I had with the moments I had spent with my father, glued to the TV, rooting for a man we both deeply admired.

If Vajpayee were around today, we would have been on the opposing ends of ideological spectrum. I would have still admired him, and it would have been okay. And that is the kind of politics that Vajpayee stood for, a politics we can no longer have.

For me, Vajpayee was a rockstar who embodied everything I admired. Witty, charming, largely unflinching, mostly brave, poignantly poetic. For those of us who still remember his tenure, we know what it feels like to be proud of the man representing us on the world stage, the man whose grace and dignity and political astuteness drew respect from every corner, the man who stood tall wherever he went and who did not need awkward, embarrassing hugs to make a mark in international politics.

Vajpayee kept humor and poetry and all those softer emotions that keep our politics humane, alive – all the emotions that have so thoroughly vanished from our public lifeVajpayee’s tenure is a reminder that political ideology notwithstanding, there is a world of difference between being a statesman and playing one. And that statesmanship perhaps retired from Indian politics the day Vajpayee quit being a politician.

My love for Vajpayee precedes my liberal leanings. But even today, with all my liberal intellectualism at my disposal, my love for the man has not dwindled. I am not blind to his faults. He was a politician after all and came with his own checkered history of choices and actions. I don’t think he was perfect or a flawless beacon of morality. My love for him doesn’t absolve him of his mistakes.

But his mistakes can’t erase his legacy, can’t erase the fact that he may have ridden the wave of polarisation to power but he also heralded one of the most development friendly eras in recent time (unlike the present government that did the exact opposite), can’t erase his economic legacy, can’t erase the Kargil War. It can’t erase the fact that the closest we came to our own “Obama” moment was when we had Vajpayee as our Prime Minister — a leader of the nation whose politics may not have been perfect, but who at least projected a sense of hope, dignity, admiration and respect.

If Vajpayee were around today, we would have been on the opposing ends of ideological spectrum. I would have still admired him, and it would have been okay. And that is the kind of politics that Vajpayee stood for, a politics we can no longer have.

Someone on my Twitter feed complained about how everyone seems to be talking about Vajpayee’s personal stories, his love for laddus, his jokes, how he indulged even his detractors, how he sought recommendations for best steak in NY. What about his economic legacy?, they asked. But that is the whole point when it comes to Vajpayee. His legacy, economic and political, is undeniable. He gave us Pokhran and Sarv Shikhsha Abhiyan, the Kargil War was won under his watch, and he created a legacy that most regimes would envy. But ultimately, what sets Vajpayee apart is that through it all, he retained his humanity, his flaws, his humour, and created the kind of stories that the entire PR machinery of the present government can never hope to manufacture.

My father loved to narrate stories about Vajpayee. His favourite, the one he always narrated with chortling amusement, was about the time when he told a bunch of journalists, “Main chir-kunwara hoon, brahmachari nahi (I am a bachelor, not a virgin).”  I can’t imagine any politician in today’s hyper-moralised, white-washed landscape to even try this stunt. But Vajpayee, for all his right wing leanings, was no prude. An alcohol-drinking, non-veg eating RSS man, he was a bundle of contradictions and revelled in them. Vajpayee never mistook being a politician for being boring, and that alone made him an exceptional politician.

Vajpayee and his excellent oratory inspired me to become a good speaker; the fact that he was also a sahityakar, is perhaps an important sub-conscious reason that influenced me to become a writer. The man who cemented the importance of wit and charm in my head to the extent that it remains an important relationship criteria for me till date.

Vajpayee wasn’t just my hero. He was my first crush, and my life has been so much better off for that.

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