Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Photo: HT
Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Photo: HT

Opinion | Vajpayee knew India had to join the global economic mainstream

Atal Bihari Vajpayee had a clear national vision, says N.K. Singh

New Delhi: I had the rare privilege of working as the secretary to Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he was prime minister. I had known him earlier. I had also spent time with him way back in 1984, when he had visited Japan.

There are three or four characteristics of Atalji which stood out.

The first is he could not be boxed within the narrow confines of any party ideology or set patterns. He had a clear national vision and strongly recognised the need for India to join the global economic mainstream.

When I was appointed as his secretary, he gave me full flexibility and handed over all economic departments to me. He had a macro-vision and wanted to constitute both the Economic Advisory Council and Council of Trade and Industry. What he had in mind was a small body where, in a drawing room atmosphere, the PM could talk and share ideas. For the Council of Trade and Industry, we had some regular names — Ratan Tata, Mukesh Ambani. From the east, I suggested the name of R.P. Goenka. But Brajesh Mishra (Vajpayee’s principal secretary) said he was busy printing the posters of Sonia (Gandhi). Atalji immediately said, “Matlab ka aadmi hai, kaam ka aadmi hai ki nahin? Agar hain tu unhe aap avashya rakhein. Is he useful or not? Please keep him." He then made good use of him.

A key area of focus for him was telecom. He had inherited a legacy where all the private companies had bid for licences with unrealistic amounts of revenue generation as target. They were going bust. Banks had non-performing assets. Courts were going after them. The telecom minister was Jagmohan. The PM was worried and asked, what should we do? I said technically, Jagmohan was asking for guarantees to be encashed. But there were real economic concerns for the sector with this. He then said – ‘why are we doing it then? Let us solve this.’ Jagmohan was replaced and sidelined. Soli Sorabjee was put in charge. SC had to be persuaded. We moved to a new revenue-sharing model. We regained our leadership in telecom.

We were travelling to New York. The next day, the PM was scheduled to talk to business and industry. He asked us to come upwith something new. Brajesh and I then said we should deregulate telecom and gave him an assessment of the costs and benefits – in terms of opening up competition and reducing prices. He said let us go ahead. His only instruction for me was to seek the permission of the minister concerned, Ram Vilas Paswan. Paswanji told me he had no objection. That is how telecom in India got deregulated.

His sagacity in dealing with allies was immense. He once told me – Chandrababu Naidu has not asked for anything, no ministry, yet he supports us. You give him what he wants. He should not come to me. We solved his problems. In the most difficult and stressful circumstances, one joke of his, one repartee would be enough to ease the tension.

He grappled with a lot of internal resistance from many in his own party, cabinet and organization who felt that the pace of economic change was rapid. He constantly supported change, reform, productivity, liberation, and fought forces in his own party. Enhancing economic change and helping India achieve leadership status remained his prime motivation.

(As told to Prashant Jha)