Decoding Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Poetic, Spell-Binding Speeches

What makes Atal Bihari Vajpayee one of India’s greatest orators.

Updated
Politics
6 min read
<b>The Quint </b>remembers ‘Atal ji’ by selecting video clips of four of his celebrated speeches.
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(India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee passed away on 16 August, at the age of 93. This article has been republished from The Quint’s archives.)

Atal Bihari Vajpayee is admired even by those who are not with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Many qualities have made him an ajaatashatru (a leader with no enemies). Among them: his spell-binding oratory, which was at once poetic and thoughtful, and frequently philosophical.

Here’s what makes his speeches stand out, among the rest:

When He Predicted The Future With This Speech

Atal Bihari Vajpayee entered public life at the beginning of the 1950s. For several decades, he was praised as “the best prime minister India has never had”. That changed in May 1996, when he became India’s tenth prime minister ─ unluckily for him, his tenure lasted merely 13 days.

The BJP had emerged as the largest single party in the elections to the 11th Lok Sabha, winning 161 seats. The Congress tally was 140, marking the end of PV Narasimha Rao’s rule. Since no single party or pre-poll alliance had secured a clear majority, the incumbent President Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma had invited Vajpayee, as the leader of the largest single party, to form the government.

The BJP could not secure enough allies to cross the halfway (272) mark. Therefore, instead of inviting a vote on the motion, which he would have lost, Vajpayee announced at the end of this speech that he was going to Rashtrapati Bhavan to tender his resignation.

It turned out to be Atal ji’s personal triumph for several reasons. First, the speech contains his confident prediction that even though he was resigning, he would return to form the government after winning the people’s mandate. The prediction came true in 1998, and again in 1999.

Second, he predicted that any government that replaced his (in 1996) would be rickety, unstable, illegitimate, and collapse due to its own internal contradictions. This is what happened. Between 1996 and 1998, India saw two short-lived United Front governments (both supported from outside by the Congress) headed, first, by HD Deve Gowda, and, then, by IK Gujral.

Both belonged to the Janata Dal, which had only 46 MPs.

Third, the entire confidence motion debate was telecast live on Doordarshan for the first time in the history of Indian television. With this speech, Vajpayee succeeded in convincing even those who were not BJP supporters that he was the right man to become India’s prime minister in the next election.

A Vajpayee Video That Is A Must Watch For Modi and Rahul Gandhi

If there is one Vajpayee video Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi should both watch, it is this. Even after nearly two decades, his speech in March 1998, when he initiated the debate on the confidence motion in the Lok Sabha, holds important lessons for both the BJP and the parties opposing it.

And it seals his reputation as India’s preeminent statesman who transcended the divisiveness that so corrodes our polity today.

Modi will hear in this speech spirited advocacy of the need to recognise and respect India’s social, religious and ethnic diversity ─ especially Vajpayee’s exhortation that those in power must be sensitive to the concerns, apprehensions and needs of minority communities.

Modi will hear in this speech how Vajpayee reached out to the opposition parties seeking their support, reminding them that he never hesitated in supporting them in the larger national interest, when they were in power. He reminded them: “All of us have to work together to face and overcome the problems and challenges before the nation. This cannot be done by a single party or a single alliance.”

Modi will also hear in this speech how respectfully Vajpayee praised Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and affirmed that, as far as foreign policy is concerned, he would not deviate from the traditional and time-tested bipartisan consensus on India’s relations with the rest of the world.

He recounted a highly revealing episode when he became India’s foreign minister in the Morarji Desai government in 1977.

There used to be a prominent portrait of Nehru ji in South Block (which houses the PMO). After the formation of the Janata Party government, I noticed that Nehru ji’s portrait was missing. I swiftly ensured that it was restored to its original place.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee

Isn’t there a lesson in this for today’s BJP leaders, who have maligned Nehru and completely marginalised him in their narrative of history?

Similarly, Rahul will hear in this speech some sobering thoughts on why the people started losing faith in the Congress. Vajpayee cautioned the Congress and its allies that their practice of treating the BJP as a “political untouchable” would not work.

In other words, just as the BJP needs to become secular, the Congress needs to come out of its “communalism vs secularism” binary.

“We Did Not Do It to Boast Our Valour”

History will remember Vajpayee for many reasons. One of them was his bold decision to make India a nuclear-armed state. On 11 and 13 May 1998, India conducted nuclear tests near Pokharan, a small town in Rajasthan’s Thar desert.

This was done with such secrecy that even USA’s spy agency, CIA, was stunned. The BJP – and its earlier incarnation, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh – had been advocating for a long time that India should arm itself with nuclear weapons. Vajpayee fulfilled this promise within two months of forming the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government.

This video contains Vajpayee’s speech in Parliament in 1999, in reply to a debate on his government’s historic decision.

Replying to the criticism from the Congress, the principal opposition party, he reminded its leaders that he, as the leader of the Jana Sangh, had supported the first-ever nuclear test conducted by Indira Gandhi’s government at Pokharan in 1974. (Unlike Vajpayee in 1998, Indira Gandhi had claimed that Pokharan-I was a “peaceful nuclear explosion”.)

In defence of Pokharan-II, Vajpayee asserted that India had to be “fully self-reliant in matters of national security.” He reminded his critics: “Vah purusharth ke prakateekaran ke liye nahin tha.” (We did not do it to boast our valour.)

Rather, “Our policy is that our country should have a minimum and credible deterrent so that no external power will ever dare threaten us.” He explained that the logic of nuclear deterrence and balance of power had helped maintain peace in Europe, which was divided into two rival military blocks.

He clarified the two pillars of India’s nuclear doctrine: “No first-use” of nuclear weapons; and never to use them against countries without nuclear weapons.

Criticising Pokharan-II, USA and several western powers (also Japan) imposed economic sanctions on India.

Referring to this, Vajpayee said:

We knew that India would have to face some difficulties. But we were also confident that Indians would overcome these difficulties with courage and determination. Economic sanctions could not stop India’s progress. We have never taken any decision, nor shied away from taking any decision, under foreign pressure.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee

He Could Be Soft As Flower, Hard As Iron

This speech by Vajpayee is different from the other three. Here, he is not speaking as prime minister, but as the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha. The year is 1997.

The prime minister’s seat is occupied by IK Gujral. He was one of India’s weakest prime ministers. He remained in office for less than a year (from April 1997 to March 1998).

The occasion is a debate in the Lok Sabha on corruption charges (in the infamous fodder scam) against the government of Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar. The opposition is demanding the dismissal of Yadav’s government. Gujral is sitting expressionless – and powerless – as Vajpayee mounts a scathing attack on the misrule in Bihar.

What is on display here is Vajpayee’s controlled aggression. He was soft as a flower on many occasions. However, he could also be hard as iron when he was called upon to speak out against the ills in our political and social system.

For example, in this speech, besides flaying the government’s inability and unwillingness to take action against the corrupt, he shows his anger over the killing of dalits by powerful caste-based “senas” (private armies) in Bihar. He also rails against the inordinate delays in the working of the judiciary in punishing wrongdoers.

As this and other three videos show, Vajpayee always did meticulous research before his speeches. In my six years of working closely with him in the PMO, I found that he would never make a loose remark unsubstantiated by facts and arguments.

Moreover, a quintessential democrat that he was, he always respected the arguments of those who disagreed with him. Therefore, he commanded the respect of even his political adversaries ─ both inside and outside Parliament.

No wonder, Vajpayee is remembered not only as one India’s best prime minsiters, but also as the greatest parliamentarian the Lok Sabha (to which he was elected 10 times) and the Rajya Sabha (where he was a member for two terms) have seen.

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