Atal Behari Vajpayee was like a guru to me. After being inspired by Jayaprakash Narayan and encouraged by Nanaji Deshmukh, I was groomed and guided by him and Advaniji in politics. Quite early in my political career, I remember a public rally being addressed by Atalji in Patna. The state BJP leadership had asked me to be there at 4 pm. I was late by 15 minutes, only to realise that Atalji had already started his speech. Seeing me on the stage, the crowds went into raptures, interrupting his speech. After a pause, Atalji, in his characteristic style, said: “Yeh Bihari Babu hain toh main bhi Atal Bihari hoon. Main jaanta hoon yeh bheed Bihari Babu ke liye aayi hai, lekin Bihari Babu bhi jaante hain ki yeh bheed Atal Bihari ke liye bhi hai (If he is Bihari Babu, I am also Atal Bihari. I am aware that these people have come for Bihari Babu but Bihari Babu knows it well that they have come also for Atal Bihari.)”
My greatest fortune is to have campaigned for Atalji when he contested the elections from Lucknow. At one of his rallies, I was choked with emotion when he introduced me as a great actor and a big politician. “I have also come to listen to him,” he announced, bringing tears to my eyes. It was under his premiership that I had the distinction of becoming a Union minister. I had an offer to do a movie. But when I went to seek Atalji’s permission for it, he flatly refused. Gunnu (his foster daughter) tried to intervene, saying that Vinod Khanna (who was a minister of state) was doing movies too. “But Shatrughanji happens to be a cabinet minister,” he told her. I told him that I would not do any film until he gave me the go-ahead. Days later, we were at an official ceremony at Vigyan Bhawan in Delhi where a foreign dignitary praised me generously in his presence, not only as an actor-politician but also for my anti-tobacco campaign. He told Atalji that I should have been made a brand ambassador of WHO. He listened to him and looked at me fondly. It was an opportune moment to subtly remind him about my film. “So?” I asked him. After a characteristic pause, he tapped my shoulder and asked me: “So how many days will you have to remain absent from Parliament?” I reassured him that I would not shoot during Parliament sessions. I could not help but tell him “love you” when he gave his nod. Later, when a controversy arose over my decision, he made it clear that I had his prior approval.
Atalji was a man of few words. In 1992, he was upset when I lost a parliamentary bypoll to Rajesh Khanna from the New Delhi constituency. He sent me a poem to assuage my feelings, which I have since quoted in many places: “Kya jeet mein, kya haar mein/Kinchit nahin bhaybheet main/Sangharsh path par jo milaa, yeh bhi sahi woh bhi sahi/Vardaan mangoonga nahin, haath nahin failaoonga.”
This poem encapsulates Atalji’s true character, personality and power of expression. It was this credo that ensured his greatness. It is a matter of immense pride that I was part of the Atal cabinet. He used to give so much respect, honour and space to his colleagues in the ministry! I have been associated with the BJP since it was a two-MP party. I keep telling people that it is my first and last party, because its beacons of light are great and towering leaders like Atalji and Advaniji. I hope people will take this country forward on the right path in keeping with their dreams and ideologies.
(The author was Union minister for health and shipping in Vajpayee’s government)