Ode to a Ratna

The Bharat Ratna for Mr Vajpayee shouldn't have waited till BJP came in power

On Friday, March 27, President Pranab Mukherjee graciously went to Atal Behari Vajpayee’s residence to confer upon him the nation’s highest award, the Bharat Ratna. By this one act, India has done itself proud. Personally, I would have been happier if this honour had been conferred earlier by the UPA dispensation.

There are some issues which are beyond partisan politics. The stature of Mr Vajpayee is such that a Bharat Ratna for him should not have waited for a BJP government to come to power.

I had the great privilege to have come to know Mr Vajpayee when he was Prime Minister.

Of course, I had the opportunity to occasionally interact with him on matters relating to diplomacy since I was posted in the ministry of external affairs at that time. But the reason why I got to meet him personally and much more often had nothing to do with diplomacy. Mr Vajpayee wanted me to translate his poems into English.

I will never forget my first meeting at 7, Race Course Road to discuss this matter. It was around 8 pm, and he was in his formal drawing room, in his trademark dhoti-kurta. When he mentioned his request I responded by saying that I would be delighted to do so, but I had three conditions. He said “Kahiye”, and his eyes twinkled in that wonderful way that anyone who has met him can never forget.

I said that I would not like to translate his “political” poems; secondly, of the remaining, the selection would be mine; and, lastly, he should not say “yes” immediately, but wait to see some of my translations. Again, his eyes twinkled, and with a smile that lit up his face he simply said: “Manzoor hai”. And so it happened that his original book in Hindi, which had 51 poems, and was titled Ikyavan Kavitayein, became 21 Poems in the English edition published by Penguin. When the book was launched, he wrote in my copy: “Pavan has translated my poems and made them more meaningful.”

Almost anybody who has come into personal contact with Mr Vajpayee will have a story or two to tell about his exceptional warmth. His qualities of affection, wit, repartee, humour, irony and accessibility combined to make him a remarkably likeable human being.

But his claim to the Bharat Ratna rests on far more substantive reasons. Firstly, he was a parliamentarian par excellence. For five decades he contributed to the evolution of India’s democratic debates in a manner which has few parallels. When he spoke, the House — and the nation — listened, because he spoke with balance and substance and deliberately eschewed the shrill and shallow partisanship that has increasingly become the hallmark of parliamentary exchanges today.

His oratory, replete with pregnant pauses and sheer linguistic dexterity, could mesmerise any audience. As the leader of the Jan Sangh, and later the BJP, he could be a formidable critic. But he took positions on the merits of an issue too, and often supported the treasury benches when he believed that this was good for the country. He praised Indira Gandhi for her leadership during the 1971 war with Pakistan, which led to the creation of Bangladesh. He supported P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh when they embarked on the 1991 economic reforms. He was a leader for whom the nation came first, political mileage later. Secondly, as Prime Minister,

Mr Vajpayee’s historic role was in attempting to mainstream the BJP. He kept the fundamentalist elements in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the larger Sangh Parivar in check, both for expedient and substantive reasons. Since he was heading a coalition, expediency demanded that he take a position on national issues, which would not alienate other coalition partners.

But, by temperament, he was a centrist in a party which was right of centre. He could not align himself mentally with those who spoke the divisive and incendiary language of religious hatred. It is true, of course, that he was party to the decision to launch the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign under Lal Krishna Advani’s leadership, but the jury is out on whether he wanted the Babri Masjid to be demolished.

Certainly, he expressed unreserved regret later for the demolition. Similarly, in 2002, in the wake of the Gujarat pogrom, he did address Narendra Modi on the need to follow “raj dharma”, although he later acquiesced in allowing him to remain chief minister. Critics will claim that he should not have compromised, but few can doubt that his initial response in invoking raj dharma was the correct one.

Thirdly, Mr Vajpayee’s strength was that, at one level, he transcended both his party and the RSS. This transcendence did not translate into rebellion but nor did it ever extinguish his personal courage of conviction. If, on a lighter note, I am allowed a personal reminiscence again, there was the occasion when Gunu (his foster daughter) ran into me somewhere and said that Baapji (as Mr Vajpayee was called) was saying that “Pavanji to ab hamari speeches likhte nahin hain. Shayad woh hamari party se naraaz hain. To unse kehna ki hum apni party se kaun sa bahut khush hain!” It is comments like these, based partly on his great sense of humour, partly on his convictions, and partly on his assured stature of being greater than those who sought to limit him, that set Mr Vajpayee firmly above the rest.

In the course of translating Mr Vajpayee’s poems, I was posted as high commissioner to Cyprus. Before leaving, when I went to say goodbye to him, he said cryptically: “Aap chaliye, main aata hoon”. I did not take his comment seriously, but next year, on his way to the United Nations in New York, he made an official visit to Cyprus. When I received him, he said with his 1,000-watt smile: “Maine apna vaada poora kiya”. By conferring the Bharat Ratna on him, the nation has fulfilled the long-delayed promise to him.

Author-diplomat Pavan K. Varma is a Rajya Sabha member

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