The year 2003 was perhaps a watershed in the political history of Nagaland. It saw the Indian National Congress being wiped out from the Naga political map and the return of Naga People’s Front, or Naga People’s Council till the preious year.
The year was, however, more important than just politics. On October 27 that year Nagaland got mobile phone connectivity, the facility which we take so much for granted today. Thanks to then-Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee who gifted the service in person.
Vajpayee, 93, passed away in Delhi today and left his mark on India. His memory will be etched on the minds of Nagas, too – and not just because he let us use smart phones. The pot-holed Asian Highway that passes through Dimapur and Kohima and onward to Imphal and Moreh, being widened is also largely thanks to Vajpayee and perhaps, to bad weather.
There is indeed a weather story behind the urgency of that announcement. Chief minister Neiphiu Rio, then the Young Turk who along with the elder Shürhozelie had vanquished S.C Jamir’s Congress, was playing host on October 26-28, 2003. For the youngish Rio who was playing host to the Prime Minister of India within six months of being sworn in, it was going to be something of a feather in the cap.
So when the previous day, it was decided that bad weather could play spoilsport to the visit, the chief minister was nervous. On the morning of October 26 after Vajpayee landed at the Dimapur airport rain clouds were the obstacle.
Vajpayee was to fly from the Dimapur airport to the Kohima helipad in an Mi-17 helicopter of the Indian military. Obviously, nervous as he was host Rio dressed in a blue suit strode up and down the helipad amid a heavy cloud cover. Some of us reporters gathered at the helipad were also anxious, risking to miss out on a Prime Minister’s unprecedented three-day visit to Kohima.
“He has tried to fly in the chopper but they had to return,” a government official muttered. After half-an-hour of waiting and keeping fingers crossed, Rio began to rush back making me think he may be rushing to Dimapur.
As I gestured questioningly to the rushing CM, Rio had a victorious smile on his face. “He is coming by road,” said Rio before rushing off. It was a good rainy day for Kohima.
All the activity was at the Raj Bhavan then the home to the erudite and articulate Shyamal Dutta. Vajpayee made it 74km on the even-then pot-holed national highway to Kohima. “If this is what you call a highway, what is a highway?” he had remarked, before releasing Rs75crore for every bad kilometre he suffered. Later, he also announced the four-laning of the national highway, an announcement that has recently seen the light of the day.
Over the next two days, there were several memorable moments for everyone as the Prime Minister enjoyed his idly-sambhar breakfast at the Governor House. Nothing was more memorable though, than his plugging of mobile telephony for Nagaland.
At a well-planned event at Raj Bhavan, Vajpayee made the inaugural call to Union communications minister Arun Shourie. The audio call was televised on a giant screen at the Raj Bhavan.
“Arunji, I must confess that I do not know how the mobile phone technology works,” said the Prime Minister. “That makes the two of us,” quipped Shourie. Vajpayee added with characteristic wisdom, “But I do know that it is all about talking, it is all about connecting people, it is all about removing distances and it is all about making life better.”
Fifteen years later, one reckons that the deeper wisdom is bringing results as the NSCN and Government of India may hopefully, sign a final pact with everyone on board. The NSCN very often spoke of Vajpayee’s strong statement on the “uniqueness” of Naga history. At a press conference during that visit, Vajpayee had also spoken something which probably went unrecorded.
The poet and statesman whose gift of wisdom and wit were received by Nagaland too, is no more. Perhaps those were the days Vajpayee himself felt the withering away and betrayed a sense of tiredness beyond his bad knees.
As the media conference concluded with its usual array of political questions, I tried to butt in with a soft question. The NSG tried to prevent the PM from answering but Dutta helped with a smile. “Pradhan Mantriji aapne Kohima par kavya likha (Did you write a poem on Kohima)?”
Hard of hearing by then, Vajpayee was prompted by the governor who repeated the question for his benefit. “Rajneeti me kavita bhool gayaa(Politics has made me forget poetry),” said Vajpayee in his inimitable style. Vajpayee proved he had more action to show than musings in the verdant hills of Kohima.