A nameplate Modi has not removed from Parliament

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was possibly the last Indian politician to have seen virtually every Prime Minister in action at first hand, his parliamentary career starting with the second Lok Sabha in 1957 and ending with the 14th in 2009.

By Anita Joshua
  • Published 17.08.18
Sonia Gandhi with Vajpayee in 2002

New Delhi: Atal Bihari Vajpayee was possibly the last Indian politician to have seen virtually every Prime Minister in action at first hand, his parliamentary career starting with the second Lok Sabha in 1957 and ending with the 14th in 2009.

Apart from his 10 Lok Sabha terms, he had two stints in the Rajya Sabha in his half-century engagement with Parliament, where he made his mark at the outset with his wit and oratory, then aged just 33.

Being an MP from the Bharatiya Jana Sangh gave him an opportunity to fight a battle of wits and words with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who is said to have presciently forecast a future premiership for his young opponent.

But Vajpayee's long tenure isn't the lone reason the BJP could not bring itself to remove his nameplate from the room he had occupied at Parliament House - it's still there nearly a decade after he ceased to be an MP or active politician.

Such was Vajpayee's stature in Parliament, party sources said, that even the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duopoly would not attempt to jettison it, although L.K. Advani's nameplate was promptly pulled down ahead of the first sitting of the current Lok Sabha.

Outside Parliament, in the BJP's new office, both have been dropped from the pantheon, with Deendayal Upadhyay and Syama Prasad Mookerjee bringing up the past and Modi-Shah the present.

Vajpayee stands tall as a parliamentarian not just because the Right wing in India has not produced another like him but also because he bettered Nehru's legatees, earning for himself the description of "Nehru of the Indian Right".

It's just one of the many sobriquets he has carried with ease, such as that of "the right man in the wrong party", " mukhota (mask)" and, till 1996, "the best Prime Minister India never had".

Sudheendra Kulkarni, who worked closely with Vajpayee during his premiership, attributes a significant part of Vajpayee's evolution as politician and parliamentarian to Nehru.

"Vajpayee became a parliamentarian at a time when our democracy and Parliament were young," Kulkarni said. "And a towering personality in Parliament when Vajpayee entered it was Nehru, a builder of democratic institutions, who set a fine example of parliamentary behaviour.''

The early grounding that Vajpayee received in Parliament made him a greater democrat, open to listening to others while using every opportunity to express his own opinions.

"From his very first term in Parliament, Nehru admired him though Vajpayee then represented a very small party. The quality of his participation in parliamentary debate owed not just to his oratory but also to the effort he put into his preparation for every parliamentary performance," Kulkarni said.

"He never took any speech of his lightly. I have heard from those who knew him back then that he would spend hours researching for his speeches, which is why they were weighty in ideas, expression and argument."

Although politics had become much more acrimonious by the time he became Prime Minister, Vajpayee never trivialised issues or denigrated the achievements of his predecessors unlike the norm these days.

An instance stands out at a time when great efforts are being made to wipe out Nehru's memory: Vajpayee, on becoming foreign minister in the Morarji Desai government in the late 1970s, insisted on re-installing a picture of "Panditji'' that had been removed from the office.

Biting in his criticism but ever free of rancour, Vajpayee did not need event managers to showcase him in or out of Parliament. With his gurgling voice, flick of the head, long pregnant pauses and easy wit, Vajpayee set one of the finest examples of parliamentary oratory in recent memory -courtesy live television - on June 1, 1996.

Facing a trust vote in the Lok Sabha after 13 days in office, he enthralled the House and worked the viewers watching the first-ever televised confidence vote in the Lok Sabha, jokingly asking the Opposition what it wanted to do with the "good Vajpayee'' in the "wrong party". The speech probably helped pave the way for his return two years later as Prime Minister.

Vajpayee's ability to reach out to the Opposition helped him ride many a storm at the head of a coalition government. Former President Pranab Mukherjee had last year narrated an instance of how Vajpayee had come across to the Opposition benches one day in the Rajya Sabha.

Mukherjee recalled telling him, somewhat taken aback: "Prime Minister, you could have sent word to me. I would have come to you."

Vajpayee apparently shrugged it off and said: "This is a small matter; we are all colleagues."

He had a special request: he wanted the Opposition to go soft on its criticism of George Fernandes as he was suffering from serious health issues.

Mukherjee agreed, responding to the respect the Prime Minister had shown his political opponent.