From ‘Pedas’ to Pokhran: My Meetings With Atal Bihari Vajpayee
I feel like he used to take long pauses just to tease us. He used to jokingly call us “bite-warriors”.
I met Atal Bihari Vajpayee four times – and they are as fresh in my memories as if they happened only yesterday.
As I progressed from being a student to a journalist, I remember Atalji to have always remained the same. A simple and calm leader of Opposition, he was unchanged even after he became India’s prime minister.
1979, As a Journalist
I was a college student then. Four of my friends and I were roaming the streets of Delhi when we came across the then finance minister Vajpayee’s house.
We went into the lawns of his house and met Atalji. He had just returned from Mathura at the time.
He asked, “Where have you come from?” and offered us pedas. We then requested him for a photograph with us.
He was dressed in pants and a shirt that day. He pointed to his clothes and said, okay, take the picture, but people in your village will remark, “ See how Vajpayee dresses in the city!”
1990, As a Journalist
In 1990, I was working as a journalist with Navbharat Times, along with reporting and commentary for BBC Radio. Those were the Mandal-Kamandal days. I put in a request to interview Vajpayee.
When I got there and started to introduce myself, he interrupted me and said, “I read your work. Your writing is pretty powerful.”
I was new in Delhi, but it felt like I was quickly getting recognised.
Now, I was working with Aaj Tak. There was a briefing at the prime minister’s house. There wasn’t much time. The reporters were out covering other stories. A team was asked to reach the premises for the briefing. Maybe Deepak Chaurasia was busy somewhere else that day, and I had called Akhilesh Sharma there anyway. Just to be safe, I went there myself as well – and saw history being made.
We gathered in the lawns of 7 Race Course road. Pramod Mahajan came first, and told us that the prime minister was going to make an important announcement. Atalji came next. With a measured smile, and a composed demeanour, he spoke about the nuclear tests in Pokhran.
The announcement was barely three or four sentences – not a word more or less. No questions or answers followed either.
I remember this day clearly. As the world correctly perceived, after the 1974 atomic bomb test, this explosion by India was strategic. Yet, it was communicated with a soft, gentle voice.
2000, in Italy and Portugal
Those days, the relationship between the media and the government was “chilled out”. If the prime minister took a foreign tour, the media travelled with him on his official plane. And the prime minister addressed the press during the return journey. Other than that, there was hardly ever any time.
But in Lisbon, we once called out his name, and he obliged us with an answer.
There was another heartfelt incident that happened on the same trip. On our way back from Lisbon, it was my cameraman Rajiv Gupta’s birthday. When Atalji found this out, he called Rajiv to his chamber, cut a cake with him, and gave him an autograph.
People were quite familiar with Vajpayee's handwriting and signature. His write ups used to be published in his hand in magazines and pamphlets. I had seen many letters in possession of my acquaintances. When Rajiv showed me his autograph, I noticed a change in the handwriting for the first time.
A slight shaking of the hand had crept into Atalji’s writing.
And His Pause!
My own memories aside, there is one thing that TV journalists would never forget him for – his pauses. He was known for taking long pauses, and in a report of 60 to 120 seconds, editing his bites was the most challenging part.
Looking back at his sense of humour, I feel like he used to take those long pauses just to tease us. He used to jokingly call us – “bite-warriors”.
(This article was first published on Quint Hindi. It has been translated by Mariam Shaheen.)
(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)
Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.