The man whose feet I touched

When the newly formed Janata Party government announced in March 1977 that their foreign minister would be Atal Bihari Vajpayee, I was both shocked and deeply disturbed. Why a hardcore Jana Sanghi should be entrusted with such a key portfolio when it could result only in the spewing of vitriol against Pakistan was beyond me.

To my astonishment, however, Vajpayee proved a huge hit when he visited Islamabad a year later and made a brilliant banquet speech in sparkling Hindustani. A major outcome of the visit was the agreement to reciprocally open consulates-general in Karachi and Mumbai. My heart sank when I heard this because it was my ardent desire to be posted to Karachi, but that was slipping out of my hands as I had completed only two years in Baghdad. Therefore, you can imagine my thrill at being informed by telegram a few days later that the foreign minister had approved the board’s proposal to post me as India’s first-ever consul-general to Karachi.

Illustration: Bhaskaran

It was my most rewarding diplomatic assignment and I have since had an almost obsessional interest in India-Pakistan relations. Vajpayee discovered this when we were both elected to the Lok Sabha in 1991. He, of course, had no recollection of the professional push he had given me but I enjoyed ribbing him about it. I was unfailing in praising him for the initiative he had taken. He repaid the compliment by always coming into the House and listening most attentively whenever I spoke on Pakistan. We were on the same side in believing that the highest priority in Indian foreign policy had to be the working out of a modus vivendi between our two nations, whatever the difficulties.

When the Narasimha Rao government decided to raise our relations with Israel to full diplomatic recognition, I cautioned against allowing Israel to have a veto on the religion of the person we would be posting as our first Ambassador to Israel. In a loud stage whisper, I heard Vajpayee asking his neighbour, Jaswant Singh, who I was talking about. And I heard Jaswant’s whispered reply, Apne dost Hamid Ansari ki baath kar rahe hain (He is talking of his friend, Hamid Ansari). Yes, indeed, I thought our west Asia expert (who was destined to become vice-president for two terms) would be the most knowledgeable ambassador we could send to Tel Aviv to negotiate a careful course between the Scylla of the Zionists and the Charybdis of the Palestinians.

I remember Vajpayee startling his own side by coming into the House to listen to me leading the attack on his government on the Ketan Parekh stock market scam, and watching his amusement and appreciation at my quoting back to him his own words of a decade earlier to condemn Dr Manmohan Singh on the Harshad Mehta scam. He was truly a democrat who enjoyed the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate.

My respect for his pluralist, progressive, democratic and secular views, despite his political origins in the RSS, led to my heart breaking on seeing the fallen hero sitting miserably at the far end of the front row of the opposition benches after losing the 2004 election. So, after taking my oath, I walked up to him, bent to touch his feet and take his blessings, as his ambitions plunged even as mine soared. It was a gesture disapproved of by my party leadership, but I do think the human touch should be integral to our democratic ethos.

Whatever our differences, and they were legion, I mourn his passing.

Aiyar is a former Union minister and social commentator.