Vajpayee’s way with words

Atal Bihari Vajpayee TEKEE TANWAR  

As a journalist who started covering national politics only in 2004, I have no personal memories of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. However, given his astonishing talent with words, he was the first from whom I learnt how phrases filled with deeper meaning can be used as a weapon.

In the early 2000s, when Vajpayee was still Prime Minister, I was assigned to cover the launch of a book ostensibly written by a member of his Council of Ministers. Vajpayee was to preside over the launch, and despite it being common knowledge that the book was probably ghostwritten, a large crowd had gathered due to the Prime Minister’s presence. “He is a great man with hidden talents,” Vajpayee said of the Minister. “I never knew he was a writer, he has kept that fact so well-hidden. Who knows, in a few years he may astonish us with his talent in music too!” The back-handed compliment immediately cut through the pretence around the event. There were sniggers and, needless to say, the remark put a stop to the Minister’s literary endeavours. It was a copy I struggled to write, for how does one convey this sarcasm subtly? It was a challenge.

At another book launch, this time a hagiography of a senior BJP leader who was a contemporary of Vajpayee’s, the remark was even sharper. “Many people have to wait till they depart the world before people can take stock of their lives. But he has achieved this in his own lifetime,” Vajpayee said.

Later, when I started covering the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it was to document the aftermath of the party’s 2004 loss in the general election. At the BJP’s 25th anniversary meet in Mumbai in 2005, Vajpayee was tired and en route to being retired, a fact that he announced suddenly at a function during the meet. To cries of “Agli baari Atal Bihari (next time Atal Bihari),” he said just one line in Marathi: “Ata bari nako, pushkal jhala (no more now, I have had enough).” And while clarifications that he was not retiring were issued the next day, Vajpayee’s declaration in Marathi turned out to be the final word in the next few months.

Alfred Tennyson once said that “words, like nature, half reveal and half conceal the soul within.” With Vajpayee, that was more than true. Learning to interpret what he revealed and concealed taught me a lot during my training as a political journalist.

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Printable version | Oct 15, 2021 4:55:19 PM |

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