New Delhi: Atal Bihari Vajpayee served as Prime Minister for six years and even as External Affairs minister, but it was, perhaps, in Parliament where he felt most at home. Throughout his long, tumultuous and illustrious political career, Vajpayee was elected to the Lok Sabha 10 times and twice to the Rajya Sabha. His speeches, laced with wit, passion and humour, have now achieved cult status in Parliament’s hall of fame. But it was his ability to reach out across the aisle to his most bitter rivals that truly made him a titan of Parliament.
Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee passes away aged 93. Follow Live Updates here.
In 1957, he was elected as a member of the 2nd Lok Sabha from Balrampur in Uttar Pradesh. It was here that he went toe-to-toe with veterans of the Congress, including Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Vajpayee also caught Nehru’s eye who saw great potential in the young Parliamentarian.
Once Nehru is said to have introduced Vajpayee to the British Prime Minister and said, “He (Atal) is a young leader of the opposition who is always criticising me, but I see in him a great future.” To another foreign dignitary, Nehru described Vajpayee as “India’s blooming young Parliamentarian”.
Nehru is said to have taken a keen interest in Vajpayee, who was unsparing in his criticism of the government and yet, respected the high office of the Prime Minister which Nehru occupied. Once, while taking a dig at Nehru, Vajpayee said, “I know that Pandit Ji practices shirshasana and is welcome to continue doing so, but this does not mean that he should look at issues with an inverted vision.”
Despite this banter, Vajpayee and Nehru enjoyed a warm relationship. During a debate in Parliament, when the PM was coming under attack from the opposition, Vajpayee stood up and asked angrily whether it was mandatory for the opposition to attack the Prime Minister for the sake of opposition. Nehru, too, reciprocated the warmth and in 1961, appointed the young Vajpayee to the National Integration Council (NIC).
Vajpayee’s bonhomie with Nehru ruffled some feathers within the Jana Sangh, Vajpayee’s then party, and the RSS. But he remained consistent in the respect he showed towards Nehru. When the PM passed away in 1964, Vajpayee said, “Nehru was an honest man who was never afraid of negotiation and never negotiated with fear.”
The warmth Vajpayee shared with Nehru was not quite the same with Nehru’s daughter, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Vajpayee and Indira Gandhi had several heated arguments in Parliament, where he accused her of running an authoritarian regime.
In 1970, during a particularly heated debate, Indira Gandhi accused the Jana Sangh of being anti-Muslim and claimed she could deal with an outfit like the Jana Sangh in five minutes. In his reply, Vajpayee not only took a dig at the PM but also reminded her of how her father dealt with disagreements. “The PM says she can deal with the Jana Sangh in five minutes. Can any democratic PM speak like this? I say in five minutes you cannot even deal with your own hair, how can you deal with us? When Nehru Ji was angry, he would at least make a good speech!”
Yet, Vajpayee was not one to deny credit where it was due. After India’s spectacular victory in the 1971 war, Vajpayee stood in Parliament and compared Indira Gandhi to the goddess Durga. In return, Indira Gandhi reached out to him for counsel now and then.
In 1984, before sending the Army to flush out militants from the Golden Temple, Indira Gandhi is said to have sought his advice. Vajpayee advised her not to take that course and think of an alternative but she went ahead with Operation Blue Star anyway. However, this demonstrates the faith the PM had in the veteran Parliamentarian.
Vajpayee would not shy away from praising other Congress leaders either. One of his friends across the aisle was Pranab Mukherjee. The two were often seen taking long walks around Parliament, discussing the state of affairs in the nation.
Once during the NDA’s time in power, Pranab Mukherjee and Murli Manohar Joshi were locked in an intense debate on Hindu scriptures, during which Mukherjee quoted Sanskrit shlokas in Parliament. According to Kingshuk Nag’s book ‘Atal Bihari Vajpayee: A man for all seasons’, Vajpayee, now the Prime Minister, stood up and said to Mukherjee, “I warned Joshi not to take pangas with you on religious matters. He does not know you have deep knowledge of the scriptures.”
In 1994, Vajpayee was awarded the ‘Outstanding Parliamentarian Award’. By this time, he was serving his seventh term as a Lok Sabha MP and had served two terms in the Rajya Sabha. Even as Prime Minister, Vajpayee would not neglect his duties to Parliament. His commitment to democracy and Parliamentary procedure was, perhaps, evidenced from his speech during the 1999 Lok Sabha floor test, when his government was facing dismissal. He had said, “Political games will continue. Governments will form and fall, parties will be made and destroyed. But this country must remain and its democracy must remain.”