Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a man of many talents. An acclaimed poet, a brilliant orator, a journalist and above all one of India’s most beloved prime ministers, he was also known as the “Bhisma Pitamah of Indian politics”. Known for his liberal and modern views, Atal, which means firmness in English, was the only prime minister of India to be elected three times.
Born to a middle-class family in Gwalior, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s father, Krishna Bihari Vajpayee, was a school teacher and a poet. Vajpayee did his schooling from Saraswati Shishu Mandir and later attended Gwalior’s Victoria College and graduated with distinction in Hindi, English and Sanskrit. He completed his post-graduation with an MA in Political Science from DAV College, Kanpur, and was awarded a first-class degree.
Vajpayee joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh as a worker in 1939, and become a full-time worker in 1947. He had had his first brush with politics during this time. In August 1942, Vajpayee was arrested along with his brother and spent 23 days in jail during the Quit India Movement.
In 1951, along with Deendayal Upadhaya, he worked for Bharatiya Jana Sangh, a political party backed by the RSS that later became the Bharatiya Janata Party. He won the Lok Sabha election from Balrampur in 1957, and had been noticed by all for his oratory. His oratorical skills impressed the first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru so much that he made a prophecy — one that would later come true. Nehru had said Atal Bihari Vajpayee was going to be the prime minister of India some day.
When Janata Dal came to power in 1977, Vajpayee served as the Minister of External Affairs. That year, he also became the first person to deliver a speech in the United Nations General Assembly in Hindi. Vajpayee joined many of his Bharatiya Jana Sangh and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh colleagues, particularly his long-time friend LK Advani, to form the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1980 and became the BJP’s first president.
The BJP soon became a prominent political party backing the issue of Ramjanmabhumi Mandir but interestingly Vajpayee was the lone BJP leader who was unhappy and had said demolishing Babri Madjid was the BJP’s “worst miscalculation”.
It was this rationality of Vajpayee that won him admirers across the Parliament and also made him the PM when BJP needed a person who could bridge the gap between hardcore Hinduvta that they were known for and the secularism practised by the rest of the country.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the Prime Minister
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was elected as the prime minister of India trice in a short span of time.
In the 1996 general elections, the BJP had emerged as the single largest party, and he was sworn in as the Prime Minister. However, he could remain on the post for only 13 days, making him also the shortest-serving prime minister of the country.
The 1998 general elections also put the BJP ahead of others. Vajpayee was again sworn in, but this time for 13 months as NDA ally AIADMK withdrew its support to his government. Elections were held again in 1999, when the BJP won majority and came to power, this time to complete its full term.
During his short 13-month tenure, Vajpayee had rocked the nation and the world. Soon after assuming power, India under Vajpayee conducted five nuclear tests in the Pokhran desert of Rajasthan.
This tests conducted in May 1998, just two months after the government came to power, filled the international community with outrage. Countries like Britain, Canada and Japan vehemently criticised India, and the USA even imposed sanctions. However, the successful tests only made Vajpayee more popular domestically.
The US sanctions on India were lifted six months later.
In 1999, Atal Bihari Vajpayee embarked on a special diplomatic mission, and launched the Delhi-Lahore bus service to improve the relations between India and Pakistan. It was suspended after the 2001 terror attack on the Indian Parliament.
In May 1999, AIADMK withdrew its support from the government and Vajpayee was left to act as a caretaker till fresh elections in October 1999.
The Kargil War, also known as Operation Vijay, took place between May and July 1999, after Pakistani soldiers under the guise of Kashmiri militants infiltrated the Line of Control and captured strategic peaks. After two months of conflict, Indian soldiers recaptured almost the entire area. “We will get them out, one way or the other,” Vajpayee had famously said in a letter to the then US President Bill Clinton. The militants had to withdraw, having lost a large number of them to India’s retaliatory attacks.
Soon after, Vajpayee faced the third general elections, and finally took the oath as the Prime Minister on October 13, 1999.
Indian Airlines plane hijack
The first major blow to his government came in December 1999, when an Indian Airlines flight IC 814 coming from Kathmandu to New Delhi was hijacked by five terrorists and flown to Kandahar in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The terrorists demanded the release of three militants, including Masood Azhar. Under extreme pressure, especially after the terrorists killed one of the passengers, the government had to relent. Masood Azhar and two others were exchanged for the hapless passengers.
Agra Summit 2001
India-Pakistan relations dominated the tenure of Vajpayee, as it witnessed incidents of all shades — from nuclear tests to bus diplomacy to terror attacks to a beginning of dialogue process.
In July 2001, a two-day summit was organized in India to initiate a dialogue between India and Pakistan. The summit was organised in Agra to resolve the long-standing disputes between the two countries. The summit, where talks were held between Prime Minister Vajpayee and Pakistani President Musharraf, however, failed — mainly because India was not satisfied with Pakistan’s pledge to halt cross-border infiltrations.
2001 attack on Parliament
On 13 December 2001, a group of armed men stormed the Parliament compound in the capital. The building was sealed off quickly and the securitymen killed the militants. This led to a stand-off between Indian and Pakistan, who remained close to a war for almost two years.
Vajpayee during his tenure was known for having encouraged the private sector and foreign investments. His pet projects — the Golden Quadrilateral and the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Sadak Yojana — proved to be an immense success and contributed to India’s economic growth.
Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan was a social scheme to provide universal access to free elementary education for children aged 6-14 years. Within four years of its launch in 2001, the number of out-of-school children dropped by 60 per cent.
With the introduction of a new policy, the Vajpayee government brought a telecom revolution in the country by replacing fixed licence fees for telecom firms with a revenue-sharing arrangement. The Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited was created to separate policy formulation and provision of service.
In March 2000, Bill Clinton, came to India, becoming the first US President to come to the country after Dwight D Eisenhower in 1959.
In the late 2002-2003, the GDP growth accelerated at record levels. The government reformed the tax system, sent out major irrigation and housing schemes. Increase in foreign investment, modernisation of public and industrial infrastructure, the creation of jobs, a rising high-tech and IT industry helped improve the nation’s international image.
India’s relations with China improved significantly with India recognising Tibet as a part of China and China returning the favour by recognising Sikkim as a part of India.
2004 general elections
The party was confident that it would win the 2004 general elections. Riding on this confidence, the party launched a pre-election campaign, Shining India. The campaign, however, bombed and BJP lost the Parliamentary elections when the single-largest party Congress returned to power in alliance with “like-minded” parties.
Vajpayee took the moral responsibility for the loss, and decided not to take up the Leader of the Opposition position, passing it on to senior party colleague LK Advani.
Since 2004, Vajpayee had lived a quiet life almost disappearing from the political space. He was known as a man of paradoxes. BJP founder but a critic of Babri Madjid demolition. A staunch supporter of nuclear-armed India but always negotiating peace talks with Pakistan. Hater of Indira Gandhi’s politics but an admirer of the way she held herself. The shortest serving Prime Minister and also India’s first non-Congress PM to complete five years in office.
It was probably this quality of Vajpayee – the ability to see the truth and stand for it, always admiring good decisions taken by anyone — made him one of the most loved politicians of the country. The all-season leader presided over the Indian politics like a giant — even in his absence.