Today is the day, Former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, will be awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour. Although it is an NDA Government giving an award to an NDA leader, almost nobody can call this a partisan decision with any sort of conviction, because this is the legacy of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as a leader who took the streets against the 1975 Emergency, as India’s first tallest opposition leader, and as a fine statesman during his tenure as Prime Minister of India.
I was 12 when it happened. I was in Sitamarhi, Bihar when I saw Dadajee talking excitedly to his friends. He was obviously happy. And soon I got to know why. India had become a Nuclear power. Later Dadajee told me how it meant that we were only the 6th country to have a nuclear bomb and now anybody will have to think twice before attacking us. There was a visible excitement in the air. After 5 decades of being the third world spokesperson, India had finally graduated and started to think big.
Those times were not easy. Conducting a Nuclear bomb test had put India on the radars of other countries, and so also opposition parties in India. News of widespread sanctions had already started flowing in. The nexus of USA-Pak and Pak-China was worried and created as much noise as it could on the international forum. There was a tremendous pressure on India to sign CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty).
But, India got through the tough times. Vajpayee personally wrote to 177 world leaders, assigned 10 MEA joint secretaries to ensure these letters were delivered within 24 hours of the tests. In addition, he was personally in touch with several key world leaders to explain to them India’s stand. Vajpayee’s speech in the parliament on the Pokhran tests made his thought process absolutely clear to everybody:
Vajpayee had always been a fighter, one to never give up. At the age of 18, he was jailed for 23 days during the Quit India Movement. He was jailed again in 1975-77 by Indira Gandhi during the emergency. An anecdote from Tavleen Singh’s book “Durbar”, from the time when Vajpayee was just released from jail after the Emergency, shows how popular he was among the people even back then:
“It was past 9 p.m. and the night had got colder although the rain had stopped. ‘Don’t worry,’ he replied with a smile, ‘ nobody will leave until Atalji speaks. Everyone here has come just to hear him.’ He pointed to a small man with steel-grey hair, the last speaker that evening. ‘Why?’ ‘Because he is the best orator in India.
It was well past 9.30 p.m. when Atalji’s turn finally came and as he rose to speak the huge crowd stood up and started to clap. Softly, hesitantly at first, then more excitedly, they shouted, ‘Indira Gandhi murdabad! Atal Behari zindabad!’ He acknowledged the slogans with hands joined in a namaste and a faint smile. Then, raising both arms to silence the crowd and closing his eyes in the manner of a practiced actor, he said, ‘Baad muddat ke mile hain deewane.’ (It has been an age since we whom they call mad have had the courage to meet) He paused. The crowd went wild. When the applause died he closed his eyes again and allowed himself another long pause before saying, ‘Kehne sunne ko bahut hain afsane.’ (There are tales to tell and tales to hear). The cheering was more prolonged, the last line of a verse that he told me later he had composed on the spur of the moment. ‘Khuli hawa mein zara saans to le lein, kab tak rahegi aazadi kaun jaane.’ (But first let us breathe deeply of the free air for we know not how long our freedom will last). The crowd was now hysterical.
Despite the night being so chilly, and a thin drizzle starting again, nobody left. They listened to Atalji in complete silence.”
As a Prime Minsiter, Vajpayee took India to new heights in almost every field. Vajpayee’s ambitious project of National Highway Development, commonly known as Golden Quadrilateral Project, connecting Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata & Chennai, was completed to an extent of almost 80% under NDA. During his tenure, the Government pushed aggressively for economic reforms and the country’s GDP growth accelerated at record levels, exceeding 6-7% Increasing foreign investment, modernization of public and industrial infrastructure, the creation of jobs, a rising high-tech and IT industry and urban modernization and expansion improved the nation’s national image. Good crop harvests and strong industrial expansion also helped the economy. The Government reformed the tax system, increased the pace of reforms and pro-business initiatives, major irrigation and housing schemes and so on.
And for those, who arent impressed by cold numbers and facts, Vajpayee had another facet. He was a poet. His poem on Pakistan is still vivid in our memories, just like his unmatchable contributions to India.