“He always came across as someone very normal, and humane—but also one who never swayed from his ideologies.” This is what Shakti Sinha said of his friend and former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, minutes before Vajpayee passed away. Sinha, currently the director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, was more than glad to accept calls and answer questions about the ailing former PM.
Sinha’s relationship with Vajpayee began in 1980, years before he was appointed to the Prime Minister’s Office. He remembers being mesmerised by Vajpayee’s thought process and the speeches he delivered. Soon afterwards, in the late 1990s, when he got a chance to work with Vajpayee, he couldn’t imagine anything better. “My journey with him, in one word, would be ‘intense,’” he says.
Sinha worked as the private secretary and then the joint secretary to the Prime Minister. Even when Vajpayee became Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha following the short government of 1996, Sinha went on to become the secretary to the Leader of Opposition. This was quite daunting for Sinha, as Vajpayee’s task force consisted only of him and a couple of clerks, “It was probably a richer learning experience,” he says. “Although it was a tiring and demanding job, it was very rewarding, and I learned a lot.”
Sinha says Vajpayee had a reputation for being a very good boss; he was always very supportive, warm and helpful. By setting high standards for himself, he inspired those in his office to follow in his footsteps. Sinha says, “Seeing him stay updated with all the latest news and developments propelled us to put in the extra effort.”
Sinha recalls that even though Vajpayee was not a very demonstrative man, he found his own ways to show his appreciation. “It was always a challenge to work with him, as is the case with all prime ministers since the pressure is tremendous, but it was never a thankless job,” Sinha says. Although Sinha can’t confess to agree with everything the government did in his time, he never faced a conflict with the prime minister.
He describes an incident that, to him, truly represented the essence of Atal Bihari Vajpayee as a politician. In 1999, Nawaz Sharif—in an interview with Shekhar Gupta, then editor-in-chief of the Indian Express—invited the Prime Minister of India to visit Pakistan in the first bus to roll from India to Pakistan in 50 years. While the Ministry of External Affairs broadcast the statement that they would decide as and when an official invitation was made, Vajpayee accepted the invitation and seized the opportunity without a second thought, based on suggestions made by some junior officers. Following this meeting, the Lahore Declaration was signed on February 21, 1999.
To this day, this impulsive political act continues to influence Sinha. The way that Vajpayee made sure to take everyone’s opinion into serious consideration was one of his most inspiring traits. He says, “Contrary to popular belief of him being docile and slow, he was always very quick to sense an opportunity and jump at it.”
Shakti Sinha’s tone was almost poignant, with a sense of foreboding, moments before the news of Vajpayee’s demise was released, as he recalled that Vajpayee’s entire life was dedicated to politics. Seeing him suffer slowly has been difficult for him.
Talking about his time in Vajpayee’s office, he says, “I felt very personally drawn to him in the many years that I worked with him, but we must accept that he too has grown old, and has been unwell for quite a while now.”