‘He was humble, friendly and curious’

Atal Bihari Vajpayee earned a lot of respect in the United States


Ritu Jha


Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India’s 10th prime minister, who died August 16 at the age of 93, had a lot of fans in the US, including intellectuals and community leaders.

“He was an intellectual person. He was committed to kind of sensible reform that India needed,” said David Mulford, who was the American ambassador to India from January 23, 2004 to February 2009.

Mulford told indica that though he went to India when Vajpayee was in power, the government changed soon thereafter, but that he continued to follow the career of the leader for years.

While the two rarely met, Mulford said that Vajpayee going ahead with a nuclear test in 1998 was what led to the civil nuclear deal with the US in 2005, when President George Bush was president.

He said, “The nuclear test of 1998 was a delicate business and it upset the United States and European countries and drew sanctions. I would say it harmed India to some extent and even embarrassed India. But he was a clear visionary for the civil nuclear initiative eventually taken under the Congress government.”

“I used to remind his [Vajpayee’s] colleagues when the agreement was coming to completion and the BJP [members in the opposition at the time] were not very supportive, it was your prime minister who was the visionary and his idea – and now we are doing this ….Why can’t you be supportive?”

The ambassador said, “Mr. Vajpayee was a leader and very important figure and people will remember him that way in India.” He added that the sanctions that were lifted by President George Bush in 2001 would have been lifted even if Vajpayee had still been at power.

Ambassador Mulford said adding while it was Manmohan Singh, the 13th prime minister of India, who as finance minister earlier had carried out several structural reforms that liberalized India’s economy and opened it to the world, Vajpayee was committed to the international structural reform that changed India internally, laying the base for higher growth.

Another admirer of Prime Minister Vajpayee, Kanwal Rekhi, managing director of Inventus Capital Partners, described Vajpayee as both taciturn and transformative.

“Vajpayee was a man of few words. He mostly shook his head. After I told him about the bad experience I had with Ram Vilas Paswan [then India’s telecommunications minister] all he said was ‘Sun liya [I’ve heard].’” Paswan was soon moved to the coal ministry.

Rekhi wrote that Vajpayee’s work to liberalize India’s economy and encourage privatization changed India

“Where should I begin? Telecom revolution, financial sector reform, auto sector reform, airline sector reform come to mind right away. Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna, the Golden Quadrilateral highway building program, changed the face of India. By the time he left [office], India’s growth rate was approaching almost 10 percent.”

Sam Pitroda with prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Sam Pitroda, telecom engineer, entrepreneur, and chairman of the Overseas Congress of All India Congress Committee, described his feelings on Twitter, also sending a copy of the material to indica:


“In the loss of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in my judgment, India has lost a leader who believed in and practiced fundamental Gandhian values related [to] Truth, Trust, Love, Inclusion, Simplicity and Decency. We all will miss him.

We all have great stories to tell about our brief but lasting interactions with and impressions of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. I hope these stories are told and shared with the nation to remind us of how he valued common people and left long-lasting impressions on many of us.

I deeply remember three interactions with him worth mentioning. First, in 1988 while I was working with Young Prime Minister Gandhi I met Atalji at Ahmedabad airport, walking by himself to the gate with the newspaper in his hand.

He saw me and stopped to say hello and asked about what I was doing on telecom and technology missions. He listened carefully, took interest and made a few encouraging remarks. He made me feel good. He took time to encourage [a] young man. He was humble, friendly and curious. He made me feel proud as an Indian.

“[The] second instance was when I attended [the] International Energy conference organize by Dr [Rajendra] Pachauri of TERI [The Energy and Resources Institute] at Vigyan Bhavan in Delhi. Mr. Vajpayee was the prime minister and the chief guest at the conference. There were over thousand people in the hall. I was seating in the first row. As Atalji walked in, we all stood up and he saw me. He immediately stopped and quietly said “Pitroda sahab aap ham sabako bhul ke chale gaye” [You forgot us and left].

I said “no sir” – with great [embarassment] because thousand people were still standing. He said, let us meet at tea. Later at tea he was charming, open, sincere and colorful. I was overwhelmed by his generosity and simplicity. It was a genuine and not a fake gesture made for media or photo ops.

The third instance was at the Lal Bahadur Shastri award at the Rashtrapati Bhavan with President [K R] Narayan and Mr. Lal Krishna Adwaniji. It was a very formal setting with all the protocols and colorful people around.

“Atalji, as PM, gave an award, interacted with me at length and took time to talk to people and engaged in meaningful conversations. President Narayanan and Mr. Advani were equally gracious and took time to talk to people and engaged in meaningful conversations.

“…All three leaders together reminded me of  Collective leadership rooted in Indian democracy.”

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