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'There needs to be a comma here': When Vajpayee donned the editor's cap in his last interview

An insider's account on two interviews with former Indian Prime Minister AB Vajpayee, more than a decade ago. Interviews that also happened to be the last interviews given by the charismatic mass leader

Sebastian PT        Last Updated: August 16, 2019  | 15:48 IST
'There needs to be a comma here': When Vajpayee donned the editor's cap in his last interview
Former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Photo: Reuters

Myriad thoughts sprinted through my mind even as the stillness in the room seemed like an eternity. Did I not ask a relevant question or should have I worded it differently? Was my accent incomprehensible? (Darn, I had been in Delhi for only a few months and had often noticed some not getting my Bangalore-accented English). Perhaps shouldn't have dived into the topic of mid-day meal (a social welfare scheme where children are provided a meal at schools) straightaway and all that...

Then, seated in the living room of his Krishna Menon Marg residence in the country's capital, former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee broke that famed "pregnant pause" of his with a "double sideways nod" and a flawless reply. That interview went on smoothly afterwards as I quickly grasped his nuances.

"A developed India tomorrow cannot be a reality till we take care of our children," he spoke with a grounded logic, passionately continuing about how the mid-day meal scheme brought the children to school, improved nutrition levels, helped them escape poverty, brought about social cohesion, empowered women and so forth.

There was a sparkle in his eyes when he spoke about children and the nation's future.

Putting some context to those times, this was a time when the former prime minister had mostly stopped giving interviews and, in retrospect, had slowly began retreating from public interaction. There would be press releases from his office, including his opinions on political issues but no interviews. This was also when Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief KS Sudarshan would regularly prod the BJP's top leadership-Vajpayee and LK Advani-to retire.

And, more importantly, there were wide speculations of Mr Vajpayee's mind deteriorating due to illness. Mr Vajpayee, though, was very lucid during the interaction.

The Last Interview

 

Soon after, I sought another interview: this time the idea was about a message to the nation on Independence Day from Mr Vajpayee. He had addressed the nation from the pulpits of the Red Fort, as prime minister, around half a dozen times. There was this sneaking possibility of him not having anything more to say as a former PM, that too in a second interview in a little over a month's time.

However, that idea appealed to him and I was back in his Krishna Menon Marg residence for the second rendezvous.

This time around Mr Vajpayee was deeply profound, wearing the hat of a statesman as well.

Mr Vajpayee, who led the country's first successful coalition government that completed its full term, spoke passionately from how India stood tall among the comity of nations to how the demographic advantage needs to be strengthened.

"Our liberal, inclusive cultural ethos inspires confidence in the inherent strength of our society," he said, perhaps stressing that to be the template of India's strength.

"True freedom is when every citizen has the opportunity to evolve to the best of one's abilities," he added. "I can also see a grave threat to this optimism," he said, with a deep intensity in his eyes, and cautioned on how the legal and security systems should ensure the rule of law.

"Ensuring safety, security and justice for all its citizens is the most fundamental duty of a state," emphasised Mr Vajpayee with his famed "double sideways nod".

"No country can claim to be a superpower if its citizens cannot walk free and property is not protected," he said, perhaps stressing that as a dharma for every government to fulfil. Words that seem to be eternally relevant.

That Comma!

This time around, Mr Vajpayee wanted to check the piece himself before it was published as it was in the "as told to" column format. I quickly keyed in his words in the adjoining staff office.

When the printout on an A4 sheet was given to him, he put on his reading glasses and held a pencil in his hand like a school headmaster. Mr Vajpayee, incidentally, had started his career as a journalist and worked with Hindi publications Rashtradharma, Panchjanya, Swadesh and Veer Arjun.

Like a news editor, he pointed out to a couple of minor grammatical errors, as I looked on in awe. What stumped me most though was him pointing to a particular sentence, and commenting: "There needs to be a comma here."

The first thought that crossed my mind was the wide speculation then about the sharpness of his mind. I found him sharp as ever.

After perusing the draft, Mr Vajpayee was game for an "off-the-record" chat on contemporary politics, and a camera click. After I bid him farewell that August day, the only other time I sort of greeted him was in the Lok Sabha, months later, when he-seated in the first row of the Opposition benches before a session began-looked up at the Press Gallery above the Speaker's chair, and seeing me in the first row acknowledged my silent greeting.

Never thought even then that Mr Vajpayee's Independence Day message would be his last media interview. That piece was published on August 15, 2005.

Ironically, his demise was officially announced a day after the country celebrated Independence Day in 2018. As the country remembers him on his first death anniversary, Mr Vajpayee's message seems to be more relevant as the days go by. Timeless, indeed.

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