Atalji was a role model. It is in this context that his departure should be viewed. The precedents and ideals that he has set for the party workers and also those in public life are worth emulating by all
I had the privilege to represent Kerala during the last rites and cremation of Atalji. It was a significant moment in my life. When the sad news came, party leadership thought of sending someone to attend the cremation. Apparently I met all the required parameters like my long association with Atalji in the party as well as in the government, etc. Prime Minister Narendra Modi walked along with the cortege of Atalji’s mortal remains on board. The body was laid in the new headquarters of the BJP in New Delhi. The serpentine queue was too long to have a glimpse of him. Prasannan, an old friend of mine and BJP Dakshin Bharat Cell Convener in Delhi, struggled hard to ‘drag’ me to the place where the body was laid to pay homage. He took advantage of my status as an MLA to facilitate my endeavour to pay the last homage to the departed soul. Prime Minister was coming to Kerala to examine the flood situation in the state. At that time, it was raining cats and dogs in Kerala and almost all Districts were immersed in flood waters. Therefore, I could return home by the PM’s flight.
I got a chance to interact with Atalji during 1964–65, when I was Kerala state General Secretary of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh. Those days, state president and state general secretary were entitled to participate in the National Executive meet held in New Delhi. Then 32, Rajendra Prasad Road, senior leader Sundar Singh Bhandari’s residence, used to be the venue. Atalji’s residence was neighbouring 34, Rajendra Prasad Road.
Atalji’s oratory SKILL was very impressive. Poetic language punctuated by pauses here and there and gestures etc., are always green in my memoryAtalji’s oratory was very impressive. Poetic language punctuated by pauses here and there and gestures etc., are always green in my memory. The audience enjoyed it with utmost appreciation and applause. They shared his laughter. He was the party president since the tragic death of Pt Deendayalji and the same time he was also the Parliamentary Party leader. Shri Bachraj Vyas from Nagpur was another former party president. Once, Deendayalji asked Atalji to deliver a speech at a party leaders meeting. He was hesitant and passed the buck back to Deendayalji. Then Deendayalji told: “I am a Pracharak and you are a Vicharak”.
The National Conference of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh in December 1967 was a significant programme in the history of the party. Prominent ‘Mathrubhumi’ Malayalam daily wrote that river Ganga came from North to South. Pt. Deendayal Upadhyaya took over from Prof Balraj Madhok as party president in that conference. And he was killed under mysterious circumstances after 41 days on February 11, 1968. Atalji then took over. National Conference in Kozhikode was an unprecedented grand success. About 14,000 delegates participated. I remember a senior journalist telling me, after hearing Deendayalji’s public address, that ‘if this is Jan Sangh, then this is what the country needs’. See, he was the chief reporter of ‘Chandrika’, the mouthpiece of Indian Union Muslim League! The conference venue was named “Sree Narayana Nagar” to commemorate the great saint Sree Narayana Guru. I was the secretary of the Reception Committee; and I was present to see off Deendayalji, his last journey from Kerala. Before leaving, he told me that just like Brahmin Hindu, Nair Hindu or Ezhava Hindu, Muslim Hindu or Christian Hindu are quite natural. He advised us to get in touch with Muslim youths and bring them to the party. His concept of Dharmrajya was equal to Gandhiji’s Ramrajya. During those days, Congress was toying with the concept of Democratic Socialism, which they were not even able to define.
We lost Deendayalji on the 41st day from the day we left Kozhikode. Addressing the condolences meeting, I declared that I was giving up my lawyer’s job and taking up the mission of fulfilling the dreams of Deendayalji.
After Deendayalji’s departure, Atalji took over as party president. Thus, our personal rapport grew stronger. Once K.G. Mararji, O.G. Thankappan, Ettumanoor Radakrishnan and I along with other went to New Delhi to campaign for the Jan Sangh during the municipal corporation election. Then I could move with Atalji in the same car for election campaign. I stayed at the central office of Jan Sangh. One day when I got up, I was just sitting in the room looking at the pictures fixed on the wall. Atalji caught hold of me and splashed rangoli on my dress as it was Holi. He himself was soaked in colours. It was cold winter and the party colleagues provided us with warm clothes. Those days, party could not afford cars. On many occasions, I have seen Atalji as a pillion rider on motor bikes. In one of the meetings, he asked me to talk about Kerala.
Atalji was very much a foodie and he was a good cook too. Once he invited all of us to his house to have a taste of his preparations. He had even prepared ‘sambar’. And he said, his sambar is not a match for Kerala sambar.
After the fall of Janata Party Government in 1979, once he came to Kerala and toured the whole state except for two districts, Idukki and Wyanad. We were passing through the Muslim majority district Malappuram. Then some old Muslim men in their 80s or 90s stopped our vehicle. They wanted to pay their respects to Atalji. They had left for Pakistan during the days of Partition. But, due to the ill treatment and miserable life there, they wanted to return home. The previous Congress regimes did not help them. But, during the stint of Janata party rule, Atalji, as the Foreign Affairs Minister, facilitated their return. That grateful group had stopped us to pay their respects to their saviour.
During that sojourn Malappuraam municipality gave him a civic reception. It is to be noted, it was an IUML-ruled municipality and P.K. Kunjalikkutty, present party general secretary and member of LS was the chairman. During that tour mammoth crowds awaited to hear him wherever he addressed the public meetings. However, the turn out in Ernakulam was poor. But, he did not lose his sense of humour. He told me, “See, this is my Waterloo!”
Now, I remember that I was with Advaniji to inspect the present Doordarshan studio site in Tiruvananthapuram when he was I&B Minister in Morarji cabinet along with MEA Atalji. During the valedictory session of all national executive meetings Atalji used to laud the Kerala BJP workers. He used to say that Kerala workers keep on working hard despite being fully aware that there was no immediate chance to come into power there; and they were facing the murderous politics of CPM and torture from the government.
During Emergency Atalji, Advaniji and other leaders were incarcerated in a Bengaluru jail and I was lodged in another jail in Kerala. When Indira Gandhi declared elections on January 18, 1977, formation of Janata Party was secretly discussed in the jails. I had written a letter to Atalji, of course, from jail, expressing my desire to keep Jan Sangh as a party sans dissolving, but as a coalition partner of Janata Party formed by the merger of Congress (O), BLD, Socialist Party, etc. But, JP’s desire was different. And the rest is history.
I remember the first visit of Atalji to Kerala after becoming the Prime Minister in 1998. He was invited to inaugurate Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMS) in Kochi. First, he wondered if PM had to inaugurate a posh hospital. Then I told him that he was going to inaugurate not only the hospital but also 5,000 houses Amma was donating to the deserving poor people. It was not a mere promise, but presenting the keys for those 5,000 houses. Then he agreed. He inaugurated the hospital and also the distribution of keys for 5,000 houses.
Atalji’s another Kerala visit was to address the state conference of Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha in Kannur. I think it was in 1984. KG Mararji and CK Padmanabhan were the organisers. I had requested Atalji in advance to visit Thalappu Siva Temple when he visted Kannur for the conference. But when he came he wondered why he should go to the temple, because he was not used to visiting temples. Then I explained him that it was unlike any other temple; it was consecrated by none other than Sree Narayana Guru, the great spiritual guru and social reformer par excellence. And, Ezhava community is a prominent society in Kerala. He was then pleased and agreed. If the logic is explained properly, he could be convinced.
Another incident was in Kollam. Sree Narayana College was celebrating its Golden Jubilee. The college management loved to get the PM to grace the occasion. Again pat came his answer: “Should a PM go to the Golden Jubilee celebrations of a college?” Again I explained that college belongs to SNDP (Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam) launched by Sree Narayana Guru. SN College in Kollam is the first of that sort SNDP had launched. Naturally, Atalji agreed. He came to the college and graced the occasion. These are some incidents which prove his affection towards Kerala.
I had the good fortune of working under Atalji as an MoS from 2000 to 2004. I had handled several portfolios like railway, urban development, defence, etc. I heard from the close associates of Atalji that I was entrusted with the urban development, because I was not corrupt.
As a minister in Atalji’s council of ministers, I had the rare privilege of playing an important role in selecting NDA’s presidential candidate. When K.R. Narayanan’s tenure was almost over, NDA brass started to discuss the right person. They zeroed in on Dr. P.C. Alexander, the then Maharashtra Governor. Senior BJP leader Pramod Mahajan met him. He was all smiles. BJP did not have a majority so they required the help of the Opposition. Here, Sonia opposed Alexander’s candidacy. I am sure she had her own dreams for the PM’s post. She thought, if a Christian becomes the president there was no room for another Christian for the post of the Prime Minister.
I then proposed to Atalji the name of Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. He told Advaniji and Pramod Mahajan, his two key advisers. Pramodji came to see me. He wondered how can an apolitical APJ could be a good President. I told him ‘apolitical’ is his best quality; he will study the issues and decide and it will be proper. Here I am extremely happy, Atalji trusted me a lot.
Atalji is a role model. It is in this context that his departure should be viewed. He was a shining model for principled politics. When he was the party leader, he used to travel in second class compartments as Deendayalji and other leaders used to do emulate him.
During the last few years of his life he was so sick that he could not move or talk properly. He did not want to see visitors either. During his career, he was respected by all including political opponents. If he speaks in the Parliament, it was always houseful. When he was awarded Bharat Ratna none expressed any objection. Not, even Sonia Gandhi. On the other hand, no doubt, Sonia Gandhi was grateful to Atalji as he had helped Rahul Gandhi when he landed in ‘undesirable situation’ in the US. Atalji had helped him when Sonia had requested. Even after the retirement he continued his firm attitude towards likes and dislikes.
(The writer is former Union Minister in Atal Behari Vajpayee government. As told to Manoj. Compiled by T. Satisan)