A life dedicated to the service of the nation

(by Advaita Kala)

India lost a great son on the day after it celebrated its 72nd Independence Day. Bharat Ratna Atal Bihari Vajpayee quietly slipped away before dusk on an evening when the skies wept over Central Delhi, where he breathed his last.

A man of wide-ranging appeal and interests, his was a life lived in all its diversity. But it was also one of struggle, one that began in a modest home with a mud floor, as recalled by former aide Shakti Sinha in an article. Vajpayee was to become Prime Minister on three different occasions, serving a full term in his last turn. A poet and a politician, often the line between the two blurred with his lyricism infusing his spellbinding political oratory.

Born in Gwalior in 1924 to a family of modest means, Vajpayee first joined the local RSS shakha as a young man in 1939, initially drawn to the games. But the precocity of a uniquely intelligent and curious mind had him engaging with the ‘boudhik’ or intellectual aspect of the local shakha, leading him to the role of a full-timer with the organization.

As a young boy, he participated in the Quit India Movement, and went to jail in 1942, only to be subsequently released on account of being a minor. However three decades later he would be granted no such allowance, in a political coming of age Vajpayee found himself incarcerated during the Emergency and the defining personality trait – reflected in his name – Atal (as in steadfast) was to exert itself.

In a rally held at Ramlila Maidan shortly after his release, he found himself on stage in front of an audience of thousands who chanted his name. In his inimitable style and reflective of his ability to wear the greatness thrust upon him lightly, he remarked wryly, ‘Kehne sunne ko bahut hai afsane. Khuli hawa mein thodi saans to le le, kab tak azaadi rahegi, bhala kaun jaane?’ (There are many stories to narrate and listen to, but let me breathe in the freedom, who knows how long it will last?) The crowd burst into spontaneous slogans after these opening lines and he was unable to say any more.

Vajpayee, a respected parliamentarian, noted for his oratory in the Lower House, was now an icon of the Emergency. The happenings of that momentous period would breathe life into the Jan Sangh, the election that followed saw Indira Gandhi defeated emphatically, and a new coalition took over the reigns of power.

Vajpayee who had once remarked that his first love after the motherland was an interest in foreign affairs, found himself as the Foreign Minister in Morarji Desai’s cabinet in March 1977. That year he would address the United Nations in Hindi, being the first person to do so, employing for the first time a now familiar term in India’s foreign policy lexicon – “Vasudeva kutumbakam” or the world is one family.

Despite his many years in politics, he entered the second Lok Sabha in 1957 for the first time at the age of 32, in an interview towards the end of his career, he said that he had thought of leaving on many occasions, but just as quickly as he would entertain this thought, a counter would emerge – where would he go? A life dedicated to the service of the nation had become immersive.

In an article he wrote for the Organiser in 1995, he candidly noted that when he was incarcerated during the Emergency, his extended family wary of the repercussions baulked at visited him, Atal had chosen a very different life from theirs. His engagement in public life increasingly isolated him and yet the “sanghatan” became a “parivaar” and the larger sangh parivaar the axis, on which his life now revolved.

By his own admission, he would have been content to lead a life of letters, of poetry, maybe becoming a professor or a journalist. However, his entry into politics had been jettisoned by the custodial death of Dr Shyma Prasad Mookerjee in Kashmir. As part of the entourage that had accompanied the Jan Sangh founder who was making his way to Kashmir to protest the “permit rule” in the state, he had stopped short of entering Kashmir on Mukherjee’s bidding. The Jan Sangh leader’s untimely demise prompted an emotional Vajpayee to take the plunge into the muddy waters of politics.

Most of his decades in politics apart from the post emergency interlude were spent in the opposition benches, possibly a role that must have seemed like a given at the time with the political hegemony of the Congress party. Viewed in this context, the task must have been momentous and Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s contribution in creating “An Alternative” in national politics cannot be underestimated.

It will be an essential study for students of Indian democracy, as is done whilst studying American democracy and the founding of the Republican Party (anti-slavery activists) in 1854, that led to a two-party system in the oldest democracy and seven years later the first Republican President – Abraham Lincoln. Today a major political party the BJP (formerly Jan Sangh) took its present form in 1980, with Atal Bihari Vajpayee as president, sixteen years later in 1996 he would be Prime Minister for the first time for 13 days, his brief coalition government collapsing. Eighteen years later the party he built brick by brick would come to power with a thumping majority, the first in three decades for any government. But then Vajpayee, a man given to modesty had made this prediction.

During his second term of eleven months, he ordered the Pokhran nuclear test a month into office, emphasizing the “no first use” principle, which India has maintained. He was unequivocal in his belief that India had every right to secure itself, these tests were a landmark and led to a shift in how the world perceived the country. Despite the sanctions placed on the country he extended an invitation to US President Bill Clinton, determined to break with the past and the stranglehold of the Soviet Union (the erstwhile socialist federalist state) on Indian foreign policy.

It had been 22 years since an American President had been invited to India. President Jimmy Carter had visited in 1978 during the Morarji Desai government when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Foreign Minister. It took the return of this affable and pragmatic politician to plant the seed for what has become a strong relationship with the oldest democracy in the world and to leave the residual chill of the Cold War behind.

Bharat Ratna Atal Bihari Vajpayee would have been content being an ordinary man, he once said that his father was one of the best men he had ever known but was never famous because he wasn’t in politics. His self-willed and poetic son would choose a different path. “Stuck” as he was in politics, in his later years Vajpayee reiterated his father’s definition of success – being a good man. In an interview to the journalist Tavleen Singh he said, “Now that I am stuck in politics, I hope to leave it unblemished and once I am gone people should say he was a good man who tried to improve the country and the world.”

He is gone now and in a time of polarised opinion, people across the country and political spectrum are saying that he was a good man. An epithet the gentle giant would have appreciated above all others.

Advaita Kala is an author, screenwriter and a columnist.

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