There has been a lot of focus on the Vajpayee era recently because of two books that have recently been published: Vinay Sitapati’s Jugalbandi: The BJP Before Modi and N.K. Singh’s Portraits of Power that refer to the said period. I too recall covering that period as a young reporter for the Sunday magazine (and later on Aaj Tak and Outlook). There are many books on the Vajpayee era but since he did not write an autobiography (unlike L.K. Advani) or commission one, it is very difficult to get an insight into what he was feeling at critical junctures of his prime ministership—or indeed most of his life. And unfortunately, most of his PMO and some of his closest friends are no more, from Brajesh Mishra, Ashok Saikia, Jaswant Singh, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat to George Fernandes. His family has also decided to let his legacy speak for itself and has not contributed to any of the books on him so far.
Which makes it all the more difficult to decipher a man who was so much larger than life in the public sphere. I recall covering his PMO, an office he presided over with a benign grandfatherly presence, leaving the nuts and bolts to his Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra. As all PMOs reflect the personality of the Prime Minister, so did this one—accessible and warm but also capable of issuing harsh snubs to those who crossed the line. The PM’s personal secretaries, initially the politically astute Shakti Sinha, and later on the dapper duo of V Anandrajan & Ajay Bisaria as the private secretaries, brought their own charm to covering the PMO. Since Ajay Bisaria came to the PMO straight from the IFS, he had a chart of all the names and pictures of the entire Cabinet under a glass top on his desk to help him send the right person into the PM’s office. But it’s not the PMO but the PMR that has the warmest memories for the television beat reporters forever parked outside Race Course Road (Vajpayee preferred to work from there instead of South Block). For, though this was one Prime Minister who took his vacations, his winter holidays were always jinxed with some crisis or the other. And so, on those cold winter nights, waiting outside Race Course Road, some reporter or the other would end up calling the PM’s residence with a fervent plea. And sure enough, tea and samosas would soon be sent for the entire media. Some gestures you do not forget.
New Years would begin with the PM’s musings from Kumarakom where he liked to spend the year-end. Since the PMO went with him, one would be SMSing ‘sources’ for any indication of what was on the PM’s mind, if not his mind, then his mood! But being a beat reporter what one loved were the summer breaks, for then Vajpayee would go to Manali for a few days, and the rest of us would follow, OB vans and all. Holi was also open house at Race Course Road for both the media and the Cabinet where one could catch Yashwant Sinha breaking into an impromptu dance. And then of course there was always the Kavvi Sammelan organised by the irrepressible Vijay Goel on the PM’s birthday who just wouldn’t take no for an answer. In fact, this was standard routine. Every year Vijay Goel would propose a kavvi sammelan and the PM would refuse. But Goel would just say “Haina jee” (ok) and go ahead and print the cards and then tell the PM, “but the cards have already been printed”. And that was that.
Despite the informal air of bonhomie, this was also one of the most pro-active PMOs since Rajiv Gandhi’s time. I recall mentioning this to Brajesh Mishra who countered with a “is that a criticism or praise?” It’s not as if South Block was ignored for that is where the media often dropped in to meet the affable Ashok Tandon (also known as “Tandon-from-Landon” due to an earlier stint there with PTI). Tandon had the tough job of placating media egos—who were demanding everything from an exclusive interview to the right to be able to carry mobile phones inside the PMO and not having to leave them at the reception. However, not many got to meet the low-profile Ashok Saikia who kept away from the limelight but his was one view the PM valued, for Saikia called it as it is. This included his perpetual air of amazement at some of the stunts politicians would pull just to get the PM’s attention.
Into this mix was brought in N.K. Singh with his Hermes ties and Kishori Amonkhar CDs. He tested Brajesh Mishra’s patience by waiting almost six weeks to get his office redone before he shifted into it but his presence definitely added to the buzz in South Block’s corridors.
Of course there were clashes—between Brajesh Mishra and Jaswant Singh on foreign policy, between Yashwant Sinha and N.K. Singh on the economic policy, and the perpetual standoff between the PMO and the Home Ministry. Not to mention the ego clashes between the GenNext of the time: Pramod Mahajan vs Sushma Swaraj vs Arun Jaitley (Narendra Modi was then CM of Gujarat and away from the durbar politics). Some were handled with a smile, some with a dressing down and others with a poet’s dexterity that left the other side guessing. In the end it all came together, because for Vajpayee this was not just an office, it was his parivar.