Shakti Sinha, Former Director, The Nehru Memorial Museum & Library (NMML), fondly remembers the tenure of his mentor and boss, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who served three terms as PM, first for a term of 13 days in 1996, then for a period of 13 months from 1998 to 1999, and finally, for a full term from 1999 to 2004.
Shakti Sinha is working on a book dealing with the initial two years of Vajpayee’s Prime Ministership, where he had a ringside seat as his private secretary.
In the beginning of the interview he shares his version on the latest NMML controversies.
Erasing Nehru Legacy?
A year after the sudden exit of well-known historian Mahesh Rangarajan from Nehru Memorial Museum & Library (NMML), Shakti Sinha was appointed as the new director of the organisation in a controversial manner. Mr. Sinha believes his appointment was absolutely appropriate and no norms were violated.
“For today’s generation, the NMML has to be interactive and participatory. The idea is to introduce modern elements to the NMML. In fact, the coverage of Nehru in the NMML is going to increase manifold.
However, he adds: “In a democratic society it’s not a good thing to focus too much one one single person.”
Shakti Sinha confirms that BJP leadership does question Nehru’s legacy. “Basically, they question Nehru’s policy on Kashmir. Why did he take the issue of Kashmir to the United Nations as Indian armed forces were marching ahead at that time. Ladakh had already been recovered. Why did you order ceasefire and why did you go to the UN, they ask.”
“They (Nehru and Vajpayee) had mutual respect for each other but Mr. Vajpayee remained critical of Nehru’s foreign policy.”
Atal Bihari Vajpayee- Hardliner and the Hindutva man?
Shakti Sinha says: “Now,’Hindu’ has become a very controversial word but in Vajpayee’s mind Hindu and Indian, both words, were on the same lines and had nothing to do with religious beliefs. ‘We can’t discriminate on the basis of religion,’ he used to say.”
During the course of the interview it was suggested to Mr. Sinha that Vajpayee was considered a man who believed in reconciliation and yet at the same time he was full of contradictions, for example, take his inflammatory speech before the Nellie Massacre, in which 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were slaughtered by a mob in 1983. In another incident, Mr. Vajpayee made an inciting speech on the eve of Babri Mosque demolition in Ayodhya in 1992.
He says: These speeches were made in the context of rallying the support base, and not to resort to violence. Which is why it was different from Rajiv Gandhi’s speech justifying the brutal massacre of Sikhs in 1984.
Sinha says “Over a period of time Mr. Vajpayee evolved as a man of ideas but he had a core belief in Hindutva. It would be wrong to say that he was not for Hindutva.”
Vajpayee vs Advani
Talking about Vajpayee’s differences with his friend and colleague, Lal Krishna Advani, who was India’s Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in Vajpayee’s cabinet, Sinha says:
“Atal Bihari Vajpayee was against the idea of taking out a Rath Yatra by LK Advani. Mr. Vajpayee thought that raising such an issue at a street level would heighten the tension. But once party decided to go ahead with it, he never spoke against the Yatra.”
Mentioning another episode, when an Indian Airlines Flight 814 was hijacked by terrorists in 1999, leading to the release of three militants, Sinha says:
“At Kandahar, Advani was against giving into the demands of hijackers but Vajpayee thought it was important to save the lives of hostages, so he allowed the swap. However, it was not always a confrontational relationship. There was an effective partnership between them.”
The Nehru Memorial Museum & Library (NMML) was established in the memory of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, as an autonomous institution under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India.
This interview with Shakti Sinha was recorded on 24 November, 2019 at Diggi Palace in Jaipur.