On Friday afternoon, Mrinalini Singh and her four-year-old niece were striding purposefully in the blistering New Delhi heat, trying to catch up with a procession headed towards Rashtriya Smriti Sthal, where former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was to be cremated. Singh, who came to Delhi for the event from Rajgir in Bihar, remembered her grandmother narrating the story of how she had gone to Ayodhya in 1992 when the Babri Masjid was demolished. “Vajpayee would openly say he was Hindu and he never compromised on that,” said the 25-year-old as she surged forward to join the crowd that had many other young people who had come to pay their respects to the leader who died on Thursday at the age of 93.
For a man who had been out of the public eye for the better part of a decade because of ill health, the large numbers of young people like Singh at Vajpayee’s funeral would seem to be surprising. Some of the mourners were not even born when the politician served his 13-day first term as prime minister in 1996. Some of them said that they had discovered Vajpayee through social media platforms, which convinced them to become supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Vajpayee, the first member of the BJP to become India’s prime minister, had been to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences on June 11 with several problems. His condition deteriorated on Wednesday morning. Vajpayee was associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh as a full-time worker. During the Emergency in 1975, he emerged, along with LK Advani, as one of the main leaders of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the political party that was reconstituted in 1980 as the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Singh said that she grew up in a home where the BJP leader was greatly admired. “Even if Vajpayee was speaking for a few seconds on the television, my father would tell me to come and watch,” she said. “You cannot compare him to any other leader. This is how people from the Sangh are. They will do anything for the country.”
Since 11 am on Friday, crowds of Vajpayee’s admirers had gathered outside the BJP headquarters in central Delhi. Dressed in white and other pale colours, the largely male mourners carried handfuls of rose petals and showered them on the giant hoardings bearing Vajpayee’s image. Some shouted slogans, such as “Bharat mata ki jai!” (Long live Mother India.) Some climbed trees to get a better view. Some clicked selfies.
Deepak Pradhan had been standing outside the ruling party’s headquarters in Delhi since the night of August 16 to get a glimpse of Vajpayee, a leader he revers. “I learnt about Atalji when I went to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh,” said 20-year-old Pradhan, a student in Delhi. “I have worked in their gaushala [cow shelter] and attended the prayer meetings regularly. They taught us about how he started off with them as a pracharak [full-time worker] and then later became the prime minister of the country. I’ve watched his speeches on YouTube.”
Many young mourners told Scroll.in that Vajpayee was as decisive leader who handed Prime Minister Narendra Modi the platform he stands on today. “He is the only person my parents spoke of while growing up,” said Ashwin Saraf, 20, a student from Sagar in Madhya Pradesh. “He was as popular as Nehru but Nehru had less competition back then. If you compare him to Manmohan Singh, then he [Singh] was not even a global figure.”
Saraf said that his grandfather was the district head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and he too had learnt about Vajpayee from attending the organisation’s shakhas.
Nand Kishore became interested in Vajpayee when he first watched a video of the leader addressing the General Assembly at the United Nations in 1977. “I don’t even want to compare him with other leaders,” said the 22-year-old law student from Ghaziabad. “He was the only leader to be loved in Kashmir.” Kishore said that he admired leaders like Narendra Modi and Vajpayee because they did not belong to political dynasties.
“He [Vajpayee] was good for the majority of us who are Hindus,” Kishore said. “If we are the majority, we will get the preference. If a train is running at a high speed with many passengers, it will not stop to save just two or three people.”
Another student from Jaipur, who did not want to state his name, said that Vajpayee, unlike other leaders, focused on the whole country . “Look at Mayawati, she only bothered about her people and her constituency,” he said. “But leaders like Vajpayeeji worked for the whole nation.”
For other students, Vajpayee was a name they discovered through his poetry. “My friend introduced me to his poetry and since then I’ve been following his work,” said Vijaya Madal, a 20-year-old who watched the procession with her father pass by. “He was the best listener. His initiatives like the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the Golden Quadrilateral are so motivating. Under his rule, Parliament functioned smoothly.”