“I love Winston Churchill; I think he had the grace of coming and the grace of leaving – when things were hard he was there, and when it was time to leave, he left.” Remove Winston Churchill in this quote by Lapo Elkann and replace it with Atal Bihari Vajpayee and it would still hold true. One of the most loved prime ministers India had and probably the tallest leader to come out of Bharatiya Janata Party breathed his last on Thursday evening, leaving millions in grief.
Churchill was elected as the British prime minister in 1940, hours before the great German invasion of France when the country had lost confidence in Chamberlain’s prosecution of the war and he was forced to resign. A great orator like Vajpayee, Churchill refused an armistice with Germany and kept the resistance alive in British Empire and created the basis for the later Allied counter-attacks of 1942–45. Britain served as the platform for the supply of the Soviet Union and the liberation of Western Europe.
Despite facing criticism by the House of Commons where a number of leaders favoured negotiating peace with Germany, including Foreign Secretary Halifax, Churchill opposed any immediate peace negotiations. His speeches served as the perfect dose of inspiration for the British leaders as well as the public.
In his famous, “finest hour” speech to the House of Commons, Churchill said, “I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.”
“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour’.”
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Vajpayee faced a similar situation as Churchill in 1999 when India went to war with Pakistan at Kargil with the United States trying to act as a peacemaker between the two countries. The war which led to Operation Vijay was fought between May and July 1999. It was necessitated months after Vajpayee had inaugurated the Delhi-Lahore bus service and travelled in it to meet his counterpart Nawaz Sharif.
The Pakistan soldiers and Kashmiri militants infiltrated into India across the Line of Control provoking an immediate action from India.
In the midst of the war, Atal Bihari Vajpayee sent a ‘secret letter’ to then US President Bill Clinton, making it clear if Pakistani infiltrators did not withdraw from the Indian territory, “we will get them out, one way or the other.”
India had also prepared a ‘Six Day War’ contingency plan and had deployed troops so that the boundary separating India and Pakistan could be crossed in less than a week, if necessary.
“Unless Pak forces leave Kargil, no discussions on any matter can take place,” Vajpayee had said in a bold interview during the war even as there was a constant pressure from the United States to resolve the matter.
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After a World War that lasted for almost five years, Germany was defeated. On may 7, 1945 the Allies accepted Germany’s surrender and Churchill broadcast to the nation that ceasefire on all fronts in Europe would come into effect at one minute past midnight that night.
India, on the other hand, captured 70% of its territory by the end of the three-month war which led to a loss of 500 lives.
As the history would suggest, none of the leaders were able to garner majority votes in the following elections and served as the leader of opposition in their respective houses.
Ralph Ingersoll reported in late 1940 that, “Everywhere I went in London people admired [Churchill’s] energy, his courage, his singleness of purpose. People said they didn’t know what Britain would do without him. He was obviously respected. But no one felt he would be Prime Minister after the war. He was simply the right man in the right job at the right time. The time being the time of a desperate war with Britain’s enemies.”
‘The right man in the right job at the right time’ – Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s time as the Indian Prime Minister couldn’t be summed up better. Despite staying away from politics for nine years, he remains highly popular among masses and opposition.
The greatest tribute to him would be for India to remember his ethos of Hindustaniyat, Insaniyat and Jamhooriyat.