In the spring of 1977, thirty years of Congress rule ended, and a new Government took power in New Delhi. Politicians who had expected to live out their days in the Opposition were unexpectedly thrust into Ministerial office. In preparation, sycophantic bureaucrats began to take away or hide any visible signs in the secretariat of the party, and family, that had for so long governed India. One member of the Janata Government was quick to notice this not-so-subtle spring cleaning. He was the External Affairs Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee. When he first entered his new office, Mr Vajpayee looked around the walls, and immediately identified a blank spot. ‘This is where Panditji’s portrait used to be’, he told his Secretary: ‘I remember it from my earlier visits to the room. Where has it gone? I want it back’.
‘Panditji’ was Jawaharlal Nehru, a politician the new Foreign Minister had reason to dislike. The organization in which Mr Vajpayee was reared, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, detested Nehru. They suspected his culture, distrusted his politics, and opposed his economics. For the R. S. S. Nehru was an Anglicized Indian out of touch with the realities of the motherland, a pseudo-secularist who was soft on the minorities, and a weak-kneed administrator who ‘gave up’ half of Kashmir. To cap it all, in matters of economics he took his cues from that godless dystopia, the Soviet Union.
All this Mr Vajpayee had imbibed with his mother’s milk, so to speak. But more recently, the two years before he became Foreign Minister had been spent in a jail where he was placed by Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi. He had, in sum, compelling ideological and personal reasons to reject Nehru and his legacy. And yet, he asked for his photograph to be reinstated in his office. It was a gesture that would not have come easily to some of his fellow pracharaks—to L. K. Advani, for instance. Mr Vajpayee is a softer man, and he must have been embarrassed by this brutal casting into the dustbin of one who was India’s longest serving Foreign Minister—Nehru held that office for seventeen years, for as long as he was Prime Minister—as well as its most effective and charismatic. Despite all that he had learnt in his shaka, once he became Foreign Minister Mr Vajpayee would have wished to claim this part of his predecessor’s legacy, thus to once more make India an articulate and influential voice in world affairs.
The story of Mr Vajpayee’s entry into South Block in April 1977 was told to me by a now retired member of the Indian Foreign Service. To this anecdotal evidence of our current Prime Minister’s admiration of the first person to hold the office, let me now offer the authoritative proof of print. Published in the proceedings of the Indian Parliament for the year 1964 is a speech delivered by Atal Behari Vajpayee after the death of Nehru. It is an extraordinary tribute, whose full import and flavour is properly conveyed only in its original Hindi. Still, as I hope to show, it is moving enough in translation.
In the third week of May, 1964, Vajpayee and Nehru had clashed in Parliament. The Prime Minister had released Sheikh Abdullah from detention, and even sent him to Pakistan to negotiate a settlement with Field Marshal Ayub Khan. The Jana Sangh naturally opposed any such talks with the enemy. They had always rejected the ‘two-nation theory’, but, said Mr Vajpayee to Mr Nehru, the Sheikh’s release and recent utterances had given voice to the still more pernicious ‘three-nation theory’, whereby Kashmir would have some kind of autonomous or (God forbid) even independent status.
While Sheikh Abdullah was in Pakistan Nehru died. The Sheikh received the news while addressing a press conference in the capital of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Muzaffarabad. The Lion of Kashmir, reported one newspaper, ‘broke into tears and sobbed… He could not speak for a few minutes. In a muffled voice, he said, “he is dead. I can’t meet him”’. Abdullah returned to Delhi, and from Palam headed straight to Teen Murti House. Here ‘Sheikh Abdullah cried like a child and the wreath nearly fell from his hands when he saw the body of Mr Nehru.’
We do not know of Atal Behari Vajpayee’s first reactions to Nehru’s death. However, speaking in Parliament some days later, he said that with the Prime Minister’s passing ‘a dream has remained half-fulfilled, a song has become silent, and a flame has banished into the Unknown. The dream was of a world free of fear and hunger; the song a great epic resonant with the spirit of the Gita and as fragrant as a rose, the flame a candle which burnt all night long, showing us the way’. The loss, said Vajpayee, was not that of a family or community or party. Mother India was in mourning because ‘her beloved Prince has gone to sleep’. Humanity was sad because its servant and ‘worshipper has left it for ever’. The ‘benefactor of the downtrodden has gone’. The ‘chief actor of the world stage has departed after performing his last act’.
Mr Vajpayee went on to compare Jawaharlal Nehru to the most hallowed of all Indian heroes. In ‘Panditji’s life’, he said, ‘we get a glimpse of the noble sentiments to be found in the saga of Valmiki’. For, like Ram, Nehru was ‘the orchestrator of the impossible and inconceivable’. He too ‘was not afraid of compromise but would never compromise under duress’. In remembering the deceased Prime Minister, Mr Vajpayee celebrated the human being whom ‘no one can replace’. That ‘strength of personality’, he remarked, ‘that vibrance and independence of mind, that quality of being able to befriend the opponent and enemy, that gentlemanliness, that greatness—this will not perhaps be found in the future’.
But Mr Vajpayee also saluted the statesman. With the foundations of the Republic built by Nehru now in question, he said, it was time to rededicate ourselves to his, and its, ideals. ‘With unity, discipline and self-confidence we must make this Republic of ours flourish. The leader has gone, but the followers remain. The sun has set, yet by the shadow of stars we must find our way. These are testing times, but we must dedicate ourselves to his great aim, so that India can become strong, capable and prosperous…’. Above all, were India to ‘establish lasting peace in the world, we shall succeed in paying proper homage to him’.
I am fairly sure that Mr Vajpayee will never read this column, but let’s hope some of his admirers and followers will. They shall probably be embarrassed by it. I myself think that the speech whose translated excerpts I have reproduced here was a rather fine one. It was beautifully worded. It displayed the ability to ‘befriend the opponent and enemy’ for which Mr Vajpayee singled out Mr Nehru. It was warm and heartfelt and humane—in a word, gentlemanly. Judging by this speech, and by other evidence that has come to us over the years, it seems clear that in some obvious ways—such as the courtesy towards his peers and adversaries—the young Jana Sanghi consciously modelled himself on his older Congress counterpart. The personal influence is manifest but of any political influence there is, alas, not a trace.