Avinashi is a small town in Tamil Nadu and lies in National Highway 544 (NH 47 previously) which connects Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Actually the highway is part of the North – South Corridor in the country. If you are planning to go to the Nilgiri Mountains (Ooty for example) from Bangalore you will branch off at Avinashi and continue on the state highway.
Last summer, we stopped at this junction to have a cup of coffee before getting on to the highway to go to Bangalore. I was (what else can you expect from me) planning to handover one of my RX 100 bikes to a friend of mine. A mechanic and a manager from a tea estate were with me driving the the bike. Looking at the beautiful highway, I commented, “this road has made life so much easier; going to Bangalore was such a nightmare before.” On hearing my comment, both the mechanic and the property manager said, “We should thank Vajpayee for this. He is a visionary.”
Two things surprised me. One was, BJP, Mr. Vajpayee’s party is not popular in Tamil Nadu and I don’t think they have elected anyone from his party in the state. So someone supporting a Leader from BJP was a surprise. The second was even more surprising. BJP is considered a Hindu party and the general perception is, no one from other religions would have anything good to say about the party or its leaders. Well! the mechanic is a Muslim (bhai as they are affectionately called in TN) and the property manager is a Christian.
During an argument in my school WhatsApp group, I narrated this incident and said, “People are more matured than we think. They will discard all caste and religious differences and support a good leader. It does not matter if he or she is from Congress or BJP or any other party for that matter.” Most of my friends agreed.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was probably the last towering politician from India. He was the first non congressman to serve a full term as a Prime Minister. This he did, leading a coalition of thirteen parties from different states in India and managed all the differences, squabbles, pulls, demands and bickering from each one of them. But one thing everyone accepted was Mr. Vajpayee would be the undisputed Leader of the coalition not just because he headed the largest party, but he was the Leader who was acceptable to all.
Vajpayee was born in Gwalior and completed his education in Gwalior and Kanpur. His father was a school teacher. He had participated in Quit India Movement, one of the many satyagraha struggles started by Gandhiji. ABV was a great orator and Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru once predicted that one day he would become the Prime Minister of India.
He was one among the many politicians who was jailed by Mrs. Gandhi during emergency. After emergency was lifted and elections announced, the opposition parties united and fought against Mrs. Gandhi and formed the first non congress Government at the center in 1977. Mr. Vajpayee went on to serve as the External Affairs Minister in that Government and made a speech in Hindi at UN (first time anyone spoke in Hindi at UN).
Public meetings which used to attract thousands of people were held in Marina beach in Chennai those days and one could listen to the stalwarts of Indian politics, enjoying a breeze from the Bay of Bengal. We were anti congress even from our school days and went to listen to the speeches of many opposition leaders like Madu Dandavate, George Fernandez, L K Advani, Vajpayee and others and were truly mesmerized by those excellent talks.
The parliament witnessed excellent debates in the seventies and eighties (not the circus and ruckus we see now). These were later broadcast on radio and extensively covered by the press. And every time Mr. Vajpayee spoke, people from various parties listened with rapt attention. A congressman once remarked, “Mr. Vajpayee is the only true congressman but not in congress.”
Even people who have not heard him or people who opposed him sided with him on two occasions. The first was when India conducted the nuclear test in spite of strict opposition from the international community. This must have been a very bold decision to say the least. India had just opened up the economy few years back and was on a fast growing GDP curve. He must have known the sanctions from USA and other countries would put a brake to that growth story. He did what he thought was right for India. But he also worked hard to mend fences with those nations and put the relationship back on track. Within two years after the blast, Bill Clinton visited India, the first USA president in twenty years to make the trip.
The other occasion was Kargil war which India won decisively and he made sure the USA put huge pressure on Pakistan to withdraw from Kargil completely. At the same time, he also worked on peace initiatives with Pakistan and took a bus to Lahore. He spoke eloquently and connected with the people of Pakistan which made Mr. Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistan Prime Minister to comment, “Mr. Vajpayee will win an election in Pakistan also.”
His other notable achievements include making primary education accessible and compulsory to all children (Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan). His dis-investment initiatives were positive and transparent. The telecom sectors reforms were so positive that a phone for every Indian became a reality (of course the telecom reforms did start in previous congress government time).
Also, as mentioned in the beginning of the blog, Golden Quadrilateral and the North – South and East – West Corridors of highway which is the first real road project in India; without this important infrastructure, there is no growth story in India.
But Vajpayee will be always remembered for his politeness and the genuine warmth he showered on everyone. He did not like Mr. Nehru’s policies and commented once that Mr. Nehru had a bit of Churchill and Chamberlin’s traits in him. But he respected him as a leader.
In the parliament he served as an MP, as an opposition leader, a minister and The Prime Minister (close to 5 decades in the August House), he maintained highest morals. He always ensured decorum in discourse and decency in debate even while taking on the Government of the day. His first Government lasted only 13 days; he had to resign when he could not prove his majority. The stirring speech he made after losing the vote moved everyone to tears and many (some even in the opposition) felt he should not have lost. His words now sound immortal. ‘Parties will be born and will disappear. Same is true with Governments. But the parliament democracy will live for ever.’ I can’t think of a more worthy Bharat Ratna (highest civilian honour in India) award-winning politician than Mr. Vajpayee.
I have one complaint about Mr. ABV though, which made me to title the blog, ‘Madras Musings.’ Kumarakom in Kerala was once listed among the top 10 holiday destinations in the world. There is a resort in the town, amidst most picturesque surroundings and I was fortunate to conduct a sales meeting in that resort. Mr. Vajpayee also spent a few days holidaying there and wrote his famous piece, ‘Kumarakom musings.’ Well to cut the long story short, the resort became so famous after Mr. Vajpayee’s visit, their prices just skyrocketed. It’s beyond everyone’s reach now.
With the passing away of Mr. Vajpayee we have lost a well known poet, an eloquent speaker, a dignified parliamentarian, a unparalleled statesman and more than everything, a great human being. Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee – RIP.