The thing that caught you about Atal Bihari Vajpayee was that he exuded unusual warmth and comfort.

I recall the evenings that we spent together at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva in 1994. We used to meet the senior diplomats over working sessions, over lunch and dinner. He would be quite relaxed over dinner—he hadn’t been prime minister, he had only been foreign minister and he was the leader of the opposition at the time. But he was amazingly relaxed and friendly. The only political—if you like—advice that I got from him was when we were on our way back, I was trying to stop over in London for a couple of days and he said “Aap aisa mat kariye, seedhe ghar chaliye (please don’t do this, come straight home). And he said “samjha kariye (please understand)"—how important he felt, it was to come back home because that was a moment of triumph on the very, very touchy issue of human rights violations that Pakistan had tried to bring against us. So I gave in very quickly to what he suggested and we travelled together back home. We landed home together. The next day, India Today wanted to do a cover story and they asked me if I would come and get photographed with Vajpayee and I said, “Why not"... and the famous hug took place—we are shown on the India Today cover, hugging each other. It’s a sad loss, that effervescent, remarkable, poetic, smiling Atal Behari Vajpayee, the great orator, is gone. Today we have finally accepted that he is not there. He will be a great loss to everyone irrespective of which party they belonged to.

You often hear my Congress colleagues sometimes refer to him in a positive way in terms of political assessments, particularly when they are trying to contrast what he meant and what he stood for with more recent times. I think there was a genuine element in him that even the opposition had to admire. I don’t think he ever emphasised that he was a Brahmin and a tall one at that. So whatever you are, you have dimensions of that identity and they don’t have to be articulated, repeated or emphasised. Those are there but you override that with a larger Indian personality. People often speak of someone being spotless and someone being untainted—there were stories about family members getting into business but he was completely untouched and above everything. As we saw with Manmohan Singh and we saw with Vajpayee, the worst critics would be careful about making any allegations. We no longer have such decency in opposition that you would say “Look, we will do everything but we can’t call this man corrupt."

The age of political giants is gone. Vajpayee was as much of an electoral draw as (Narendra) Modi; I am not talking in terms of exact volumes and levels—but he was. He was a gigantic figure and without him, the BJP might not have been anywhere. And he was up against a lot of things that he—I am sure—was not comfortable with. When he spoke of “Rajdharam" in the context of Gujarat in 2002, clearly he was not comfortable with what happened in Gujarat and what happened on 6 December (1992) in Ayodhya. He was not a saint, he was a politician, he was not going to walk away from it but, short of being a saint, he was everything. I think our country is lucky that we had someone like him.

As told to Elizabeth Roche of Mint.

Salman Khurshid was minister of state for external affairs when he, along with Vajpayee and National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah, was sent to the UN Human Rights Commission in 1994 to defeat a move by Pakistan to put India in the dock over alleged human rights abuses in Kashmir.

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