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

India Today - - THE LEGACY OF VAJPAYEE - By Shakti Sinha

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


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