AN EASYGOING BOSS,
Vajpayee never needed to assert his authority. But behind the quiet, often sleepy, demeanour was the organised brain of a meticulous person who was democratic in his approach yet firm in his beliefs
It is difficult, and yet easy to classify Atal Bihari Vajpayee as a boss. The first thing I had to understand— and it took me a long time to do that—was to accept him with his limitations. It was only over a period of time that I realised that while he had few illusions, he was, at the same time, supremely self-confident. Initially, it was not an easy task, as he was quite content to be silent and I was left wondering what I was supposed to do.
This became acute in June 1996, when he became leader of the opposition (LOP) in the Lok Sabha, barely two weeks after my joining him. I was plunged into unfamiliar territory. As an IAS officer, to function as secretary to LOP was unprecedented. It was a small office, and while functioning from home, there was him, me and a lower functionary who attended the phone. Slowly things fell into routine, which meant I read the few hundred letters that he received, prepared replies for the ones I thought were worth replying to, and sent the others to relevant government departments. For the really serious ones, he would write out replies, and many times on the replies that I had prepared.
Since he was invited as the chief guest at some function or the other, I had to write speeches for him. I remember a particular function at the Centre for Science and Environment; he rejected all my drafts, finally telling me that I was writing an essay, not a speech. He made major revisions, and the speech turned out to be quite good. It was a lesson for me. Gradually, I realised that behind the quiet and often sleepy demeanour, there was a hard-working brain of a meticulous person who could not be easily satisfied on critical issues. A 200-page country brief prepared by the external affairs ministry used to be absorbed in merely an evening, making my life difficult as it meant that I too had to read it. He was not only a ‘big picture’ person but also someone who could see the links between seemingly unrelated points. Nothing was too small to escape his notice. Non-verbally, he made it clear that the bar was set high and everyone had to meet it.
This was clear when he recorded speeches for TV. He was willing to repeat recordings numerous times, till it was blemish-free. This infinite patience did not mean that he did not act fast when he sensed an opportunity. The Lahore visit, which changed how the world looked at a nuclear-empowered India, would not have happened had he not seized upon Nawaz Sharif ’s interview, in which he said that he would be most happy to host Mr Vajpayee in Lahore. Contrary to the MEA advice, which suggested a reaction only after a formal invitation was received, he said that he would be happy to go to Lahore. While the result of the visit was the Kargil war, the de-hyphenation with Pakistan was achieved. On other occasions, however, he was ready to hear out all parties.
What I remember about him as a boss is the daily breakfast conversation where Brajesh Mishra and Ashok Saikia were permanent fixtures. Everybody had read the newspapers, the key points were discussed, disagreements expressed firmly but politely, the day’s agenda was finalised, and everyone had to report back in the evening. It was heady, democratic, but ultimately, it was only one pair of hands on the wheel. Vajpayee didn’t need to assert himself, but it was a mistake to assume otherwise.
The writer was Vajpayee’s private secretary for three-and-ahalf years, both when he was in the Opposition and as prime minister