About Atal Bihari Vajpayee
Atal Bihari Vajpayee BR (pronunciation [əʈəl bɪhaːɾiː ʋaːdʒpai]; 25 December 1924 – 16 August 2018) was an Indian politician who thrice served as the Prime Minister of India, first for a term of 13 days in 1996, then for a period of eleven months from 1998 to 1999, and finally, for a full term from 1999 to 2004.
He was a member of the Indian Parliament for over four decades, having been elected to the Lok Sabha, the lower house, ten times, and twice to the Rajya Sabha, the upper house. He served as the Member of Parliament for Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh until 2009 when he retired from active politics due to health concerns. Vajpayee was among the founding members of the erstwhile Bharatiya Jana Sangh which he also headed from 1968 to 1972. He was the Minister of External Affairs in the cabinet of Prime Minister Morarji Desai.
When the Janata government collapsed, Vajpayee restructured the Jana Sangh into the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1980. He was the first Indian prime minister who was not a member of the Indian National Congress party to have served a full five-year term in office.
He was conferred India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, by the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee in 2015. The Modi government declared in 2014 that Vajpayee’s birthday, 25 December, would be marked as Good Governance Day. He died on 16 August 2018 due to age related illness.
Early life and education
Vajpayee was born to Krishna Devi and Krishna Bihari Vajpayee on 25 December 1924 in Gwalior. His grandfather, Pandit Shyam Lal Vajpayee, had migrated to Morena, Gwalior from his ancestral village of Bateshwar, Uttar Pradesh. His father, Krishna Bihari Vajpayee, was a school teacher in his hometown. Vajpayee did his schooling from the Saraswati Shishu Mandir, Gwalior. He subsequently attended Gwalior’s Victoria College (now Laxmi Bai College) and graduated with distinction in Hindi, English and Sanskrit. He completed his post-graduation with an M.A. in Political Science from DAV College, Kanpur, and was awarded a first-class degree.
His activism started with Arya Kumar Sabha of Gwalior, the youth wing of the Arya Samaj, of which he became the general secretary in 1944. He also joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as a swayamsevak, or volunteer, in 1939. Influenced by Babasaheb Apte, he attended the Officers Training Camp of the RSS during 1940–44 and became a pracharak, RSS terminology for a a full-time worker, in 1947. He gave up studying law due to the partition riots. He was sent as a vistarak, a probationary pracharak, to Uttar Pradesh and quickly began working for the newspapers of Deendayal Upadhyaya, Rashtradharma (a Hindi monthly), Panchjanya (a Hindi weekly) and the dailies Swadesh and Veer Arjun.
Early political career (1942–1975)
By 1942, Vajpayee, though only 16 years old at the time, had already become an active member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. In August 1942, he and his elder brother Prem were arrested for 24 days during the Quit India Movement. He was released after giving a written undertaking stating that while he was a part of the crowd, he did not participate in the militant events in Bateshwar on 27 August 1942.
In 1948, the RSS was banned for its alleged role in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. In 1951, he was seconded by the RSS, along with Deendayal Upadhyaya, to work for the newly formed Bharatiya Jana Sangh, a Hindu right-wing political party associated with the RSS. He was appointed as a national secretary of the party in charge of the Northern region, based in Delhi. He soon became a follower and aide of party leader Syama Prasad Mukherjee. In 1954, Vajpayee was with Mukherjee when he went on a fast-unto-death in Kashmir to protest against the perceived inferior treatment of non-Kashmiri Indian visitors to the state. Mookerjee died in prison during this strike. In 1957, Vajpayee lost to Raja Mahendra Pratap in Mathura for the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament of India, but was elected from Balrampur. There, his oratorial skills so impressed Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that he predicted that Vajpayee would someday become the Prime Minister of India.
Vajpayee’s oratorial skills won him the reputation of being the most eloquent defender of the Jana Sangh’s policies. After the death of Deendayal Upadhyaya, the leadership of the Jana Sangh passed to Vajpayee. He became the national president of the Jana Sangh in 1968, running the party along with Nanaji Deshmukh, Balraj Madhok and L. K. Advani.
Political career (1975–1995)
A coalition of parties, called the Janata Party, won the 1977 general elections. Morarji Desai, the chosen leader of the alliance, became the prime minister. Vajpayee served as the Minister of External Affairs, or foreign minister, in Desai’s cabinet. As foreign minister, Vajpayee became the first person in 1977 to deliver a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in Hindi.
The Janata Party was dissolved soon after Morarji Desai resigned as Prime Minister in 1979. The Jana Sangh had devoted its political organisation to sustain the coalition and was left exhausted by the internecine political wars within the Janata Party.[dead link] Erstwhile members of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh came together to form the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1980, with Vajpayee as its first President. The BJP evolved into the primary opposition group in Indian politics, and Vajpayee an important political figure.
The 1984 general elections were held in the wake of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards. While he had won the 1977 and the 1980 elections from New Delhi, Vajpayee shifted to his home town Gwalior for the election. Vidya Razdan was initially tipped to be the Congress (I) candidate. Instead, Madhavrao Scindia, scion of the Gwalior royal family, was brought in on the last day of filing nominations. Vajpayee lost to Sciendia, managing to secure only 29% of the votes. Gandhi’s assassination generated sympathy for the Congress, leading to a massive victory at the polls. BJP could only win two seats in parliament.  Vajpayee offered to quit as party president following BJP’s dismal performance in the election, but stayed in the post until 1986. He was elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1986 from Madhya Pradesh, and was the leader of the BJP in parliament. In 1986, LK Advani, took charge as the party president.
Beginning in 1990, the BJP became the political voice of the Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir Movement which sought to build a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Rama in Ayodhya. The temple would be built at the site believed to be the birthplace of Rama by demolishing a 16th century mosque, called the Babri Masjid, which then stood there. In December 1992, a group of religious volunteers led by members of the BJP, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), tore down the mosque. BJP’s role in the movement led to major political gains.
Victory in the assembly elections in Gujarat and Maharashtra in March 1995, and a good performance in the elections to the Karnataka assembly in December 1994, propelled the BJP to greater political prominence. During a BJP conference in Mumbai in November 1995, BJP President L. K. Advani declared that Vajpayee would become the Prime Minister of India. The BJP won in the May 1996 parliamentary elections.
Vajpayee served as the Prime Minister of India between 1996 and 2004 in three non-consecutive terms.
First term: May 1996
The BJP grew in strength in the early 1995, riding on nationalist sentiment in the country. In the 1996 general elections, the BJP emerged as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha. The then president Shankar Dayal Sharma invited Vajpayee to form the government. Vajpayee was sworn in as the 10th Prime Minister of India, but the BJP failed to muster enough support from other parties to obtain a majority. He resigned after 13 days when it became clear that he could not garner a majority.
Second term: 1998–1999
After the fall of the two United Front governments between 1996 and 1998, the Lok Sabha was dissolved and fresh elections were held. The 1998 general elections again put the BJP ahead of others. This time, a cohesive bloc of political parties joined the BJP to form the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and Vajpayee was sworn in as the Prime Minister.
The NDA proved its majority in the parliament. The government lasted 13 months until mid-1999 when the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) under Jayalalithaawithdrew its support to the government. The government lost the ensuing vote of confidence motion in the Lok Sabha by a single vote on 17 April 1999. As the Opposition was unable to come up with the numbers to form the new government, the Lok Sabha was again dissolved and fresh elections were held. Vajpayee remained the Prime Minister until the elections were held.
In May 1998, India conducted five underground nuclear tests in Pokhran desert in Rajasthan, 24 yrs after India conducted its first nuclear test (Smiling Buddha) in 1974. This test is called Pokhran-II. The tests were held just a month after the government had been in power. Two weeks later, Pakistan responded with its own nuclear tests making it the newest nation with declared nuclear capability.
|“||Today, at 15:45 hours, India conducted three underground nuclear tests in the Pokhran range. The tests conducted today were with a fission device, a low yield device and a thermonuclear device. The measured yields are in line with expected values. Measurements have also confirmed that there was no release of radioactivity into the atmosphere. These were contained explosions like the experiment conducted in May 1974. I warmly congratulate the scientists and engineers who have carried out these successful tests.||”|
While some nations, such as Russia and France, endorsed India’s right to defensive nuclear power, others including the United States, Canada, Japan, Britain and the European Union imposed sanctions on information, resources and technology to India. In spite of intense international criticism and steady decline in foreign investment and trade, the nuclear tests were popular domestically. In effect, the international sanctions imposed failed to sway India from weaponising its nuclear capability. US sanctions against India and Pakistan were eventually lifted after just six months, a development that the Vajpayee administration had anticipated and planned for.
The Lahore summit
In late 1998 and early 1999, Vajpayee began a push for a full-scale diplomatic peace process with Pakistan. With the historic inauguration of the Delhi-Lahore bus service in February 1999, Vajpayee initiated a new peace process aimed towards permanently resolving the Kashmir dispute and other conflicts with Pakistan. The resultant Lahore Declarationespoused a commitment to dialogue, expanded trade relations and mutual friendship and envisaged a goal of denuclearised South Asia. This eased the tension created by the 1998 nuclear tests, not only within the two nations but also in South Asia and the rest of the world.
The Vajpayee-led government was faced with two crises in mid-1999. The AIADMK had continually threatened to withdraw from the coalition and national leaders repeatedly flew down from Delhi to Chennai to pacify the AIADMK chief J. Jayalalitha. However, in May 1999, the AIADMK did pull the plug on the NDA, and the Vajpayee administration was reduced to a caretaker status pending fresh elections scheduled for October 1999.
It was revealed that militants and non-uniformed Pakistani soldiers (many with official identifications and Pakistan Army‘s custom weaponry) had infiltrated into the Kashmir Valley and captured control of border hilltops, unmanned border posts and were spreading out fast. The incursion was centred around the town of Kargil, but also included the Batalik and Akhnoor sectors and artillery exchanges at the Siachen Glacier.
Indian army units were swiftly rushed into Kashmir in response. Operation Vijay, launched in June 1999, saw the Indian military fighting thousands of militants and soldiers in the midst of heavy artillery shelling and while facing extremely cold weather, snow and treacherous terrain at the high altitude. Over 500 Indian soldiers were killed in the three-month-long Kargil War, and it is estimated around 600-4,000 Pakistani militants and soldiers died as well. India pushed back the Pakistani militants and Northern Light Infantrysoldiers. Almost 70% of the territory was recaptured by India. Vajpayee sent a “secret letter” to US President Bill Clinton that if Pakistani infiltrators did not withdraw from the Indian territory, “we will get them out, one way or the other” – meaning he did not rule out crossing the Line of Control (LoC), or was the use of nuclear weapons.
After Pakistan suffered heavy losses, and with both the United States and China refusing to condone the incursion or threaten India to stop its military operations, General Musharrafwas recalcitrant and Nawaz Sharif asked the remaining militants to stop and withdraw to positions along the LoC. The militants were not willing to accept orders from Sharif but the NLI soldiers withdrew. The militants were killed by the army or forced to withdraw in skirmishes which went beyond the announcement of withdrawal by Pakistan.
Third term: 1999–2004
In the 1999 general elections, the BJP-led NDA won 303 seats out of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, in the aftermath of the Kargil operations, thereby securing a comfortable and stable majority. On 13 October 1999, Atal Bihari Vajpayee took oath as Prime Minister of India for the third time.
Indian Airlines hijack
A national crisis emerged in December 1999, when Indian Airlines flight IC 814 from Kathmandu to New Delhi was hijacked by five terrorists and flown to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The hijackers made several demands including the release of certain terrorists like Masood Azhar from prison. Under extreme pressure, the government ultimately caved in. Jaswant Singh, the Minister of External Affairs at the time, flew with the terrorists to Afghanistan and exchanged them for the passengers.
National highway project, foreign policy and economic reforms
During his administration, Vajpayee introduced many domestic economic and infrastructural reforms, including encouraging the private sector and foreign investments, reducing governmental waste, encouraging research and development and privatisation of some government owned corporations. The UPA Government on 1 July 2013 accepted before Supreme Court that National Democratic Alliance Government led by Vajpayee has developed half the roads in last 32 years in their 5-year term.
In March 2000, Bill Clinton, the President of the United States, paid a state visit to India. This was the first state visit to India by a US President in 22 years since President Jimmy Carter’s visit in 1978. President Clinton’s visit was hailed as a significant milestone in the relations between the two countries. Vajpayee and Clinton had wide-ranging discussion on bilateral, regional and international developments. The visit led to expansion in trade and economic ties between India and the US. The Historic Vision Document on the future course of Indo-US relations was signed during the visit.
Domestically, the BJP-led government was under constant pressure from its ideological mentor, the RSS, and the hard-line VHP to enact the Hindutva agenda. But owing to its dependence on coalition support, it was impossible for the BJP to push items like building the Ram Janmabhoomi temple in Ayodhya, repealing Article 370 which gave a special status to the state of Kashmir, or enacting a uniform civil code applicable to adherents of all religions. On 17 January 2000, there were reports of the RSS and some BJP hard-liners threatening to restart the Jan Sangh, the precursor to the BJP, because of their discontent over Atal Bihari Vajpayee rule. Former president of the Jan Sangh, Balraj Madhok, had written a letter to the then RSS chief, Rajendra Singh for support. The BJP was, however, accused of saffronising (saffron being the colour of the flag of the RSS, symbol of the Hindu nationalism movement) the official state education curriculum and apparatus. Also, Home Minister L.K. Advani and Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi were indicted in the 1992 Babri Mosque demolition case for inciting a mob of activists. Vajpayee himself came under public scrutiny owing to his controversial speech one day prior to the mosque demolition.
These couple of years of reform however were accompanied by infighting in the administration and confusion regarding the direction of government. Vajpayee’s weakening health was also a subject of public interest, and he underwent a major knee-replacement surgery at the Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai to relieve great pressure on his legs.
In March 2001, the Tehelka group released the sting operation video named Operation West End showing videos of the BJP PresidentBangaru Laxman, senior army officers and NDA members accepting bribes from journalists posing as agents and businessmen.The Defence Minister George Fernandes was forced to resign following the Barak Missile scandal, another scandal involving the botched supplies of coffins for the soldiers killed in Kargil, and the findings of an inquiry commission that the Government could have prevented the Kargil invasion.
Vajpayee again broke the ice in the Indo-Pak relations by inviting Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to Delhi and Agra for a joint summit and peace talks which became known as the Agra summit. His second major attempt to move beyond the stalemate involved inviting the man who had planned the Kargil invasions. But accepting him as the President of Pakistan, Vajpayee chose to move forward. But after three days of much fanfare, which included Musharraf visiting his birthplace in Delhi, the summit failed to achieve a breakthrough as President Musharraf declined to leave aside the issue of Kashmir.
2001 attack on Parliament
On 13 December 2001, a group of masked, armed men with fake IDs stormed the Parliament House in Delhi. The terrorists managed to kill several security guards, but the building was sealed off swiftly and security forces cornered and killed the men, who were later proven to be Pakistan nationals. Prime Minister Vajpayee ordered a mobilisation of India’s military forces, and as many as 500,000 servicemen amassed along the international boundary bordering Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Kashmir. Pakistan responded with the same. Vicious terrorist attacks and an aggressive anti-terrorist campaign froze day-to-day life in Kashmir, and foreigners flocked out of both India and Pakistan, fearing a possible war and nuclear exchange. For as long as two years, both nations remained perilously close to a terrible war.
The Vajpayee administration also passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act against vigorous opposition of non-NDA parties. Human rights groups have condemned the act which gives wide authority to the government to crack down and hold anybody. Its repeal was advocated by human rights organisations.
But the biggest political disaster hit his government between December 2001 and March 2002: the VHP held the Government hostage in a major standoff in Ayodhya over the Ram temple. At the 10th anniversary of the destruction of the Babri mosque, the VHP wanted to perform a shila daan, or a ceremony laying the foundation stone of the cherished temple at the disputed site. Tens of thousands of VHP activists amassed and threatened to overrun the site and forcibly build the temple. A grave threat of not only communal violence, but an outright breakdown of law and order owing to the defiance of the government by a religious organisation hung over the nation. But to the relief of Vajpayee, his government was able to tide over this crisis rather smoothly.
2002 Gujarat violence
In 2002, Hindu-Muslim violence in the state Gujarat killed more than 1,000 people. Vajpayee officially condemned the violence.
Later, Vajpayee made controversial remarks: “Wherever there are Muslims in large numbers, they do not want to live in peace.” The Prime Minister’s Office stated that these remarks had been taken out of context.
Vajpayee was accused of doing nothing to stop the violence, and later admitted mistakes in handling the events. K. R. Narayanan, then president of India, also blamed Vajpayee’s government for failing to quell the violence.
In late 2002 and 2003 the government pushed through economic reforms, and the country’s GDP growth accelerated at record levels, exceeding 6–7%. Increasing foreign investment, modernisation of public and industrial infrastructure, the creation of jobs, a rising high-tech and IT industry and urban modernisation and expansion improved the nation’s international image. Good crop harvests and strong industrial expansion also helped the economy.
The government reformed the tax system, increased the pace of reforms and pro-business initiatives, major irrigation and housing schemes and so on. The political energies of the BJP shifted to the rising urban middle-class and young people, who were positive and enthusiastic about the major economic expansion and future of the country. He faced stiff opposition from other equally strong organisations in the Sangh Parivar such as the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh and the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh. However, he continued with his aggressive economic reform policy.
In August 2003, he announced before the parliament his “absolute last” effort to achieve peace with Pakistan. Although the diplomatic process never truly set-off immediately, visits were exchanged by high-level officials and the military stand-off ended. The Pakistani President and Pakistani politicians, civil and religious leaders hailed this initiative as did the leaders of America, Europe and much of the world. In July 2003, Prime Minister Vajpayee, visited China, and met with various Chinese leaders. He recognised Tibet as a part of China, which was welcomed by the Chinese leadership, who in the following year, recognised Sikkim, as a part of India. China–India relations improved greatly in the following years.
Advani assumed greater responsibilities in the party, and although no perceivable conflict has been known to arise between the longtime friends and political colleagues, several embarrassing statements were made. Once Vajpayee said “Advani would lead the BJP in the elections,” prompting Advani to clarify that he would merely lead the election campaign, not the party. And then the BJP President Venkaiah Naidu used mythological references to depict Vajpayee as Vikas Purush (Man of Progress) and Advani as Loh Purush (Iron Man).
2004 general election
The NDA was widely expected to retain power after the 2004 general election. The 13th Lok Sabha had been dissolved before the completion of its term to capitalise on the perceived ‘feel-good factor’ and BJP’s recent successes in the Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The BJP hoped to capitalise on the slogan “India Shining” and released many ads touting the economic growth of the nation.
However, the coalition lost almost half of its seats, with several prominent cabinet ministers being defeated. The Indian National Congress, led by Sonia Gandhi, became the single largest party and, along with many minor parties, formed the United Progressive Alliance. With the conditional support of the leftist parties from the outside, the UPA formed a government under Manmohan Singh. Vajpayee resigned as Prime Minister. He decided not to take up the position of the Leader of the Opposition and passed on the leadership mantle to L. K. Advani.
In December 2005, Vajpayee announced his retirement from active politics, declaring that he would not contest in the next general election. In a famous statement at the BJP’s silver jubilee rally at Mumbai’s Shivaji Park, Vajpayee announced that “Henceforth, Lal Krishna Advani and Pramod Mahajan will be the Ram-Laxman [the two godly brothers much revered and worshipped by Hindus] of the BJP.”
Vajpayee was referred to as the Bhishma Pitamah of Indian politics by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during a speech in the Rajya Sabha, a reference to a mythological figure in the Hindu epic Mahabharata who was held in respect by two warring sides.
Vajpayee was hospitalised at All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi (AIIMS) for a chest infection and fever on 6 February 2009. He was put on ventilator support as his condition worsened but he eventually recuperated and was later discharged. Unable to participate in the campaign for the 2009 general election due to his poor health, he wrote a letter urging voters to back the BJP. His protege Lalji Tandon was able to retain the Lucknow seat in that election even though the NDA suffered electoral reverses all over the country. It was speculated that Vajpayee’s non-partisan appeal contributed to Lalji’s success in Lucknow in contrast to that BJP’s poor performance elsewhere in Uttar Pradesh.
Vajpayee remained a bachelor his entire life. He adopted and raised as his own child Namita Bhattacharya, the daughter of longtime friend Rajkumari Kaul and BN Kaul.
He was a published poet, and with regard to his poetry he wrote, “My poetry is a declaration of war, not an exordium to defeat. It is not the defeated soldier’s drumbeat of despair, but the fighting warrior’s will to win. It is not the despirited voice of dejection but the stirring shout of victory.”
Vajpayee suffered a stroke in 2009 which impaired his speech. His health had been a major source of concern reports said he was confined to a wheelchair and failed to recognise people. He also suffered from dementia and long-term diabetes. For many years, he had not attended any public engagements and rarely ventured out of the house, except for checkups at the All India Institutes of Medical Sciences. On 11 June 2018, Vajpayee was admitted to AIIMS in critical condition. He died there at 5:05 pm IST on 16 August 2018 due to age related illness.
- 1992, Padma Vibhushan
- 1993, D. Lit. from Kanpur University
- 1994, Lokmanya Tilak Award
- 1994, Outstanding Parliamentarian Award
- 1994, Bharat Ratna Pandit Govind Vallabh Pant Award
- 2015, Bharat Ratna
- 2015, Bangladesh Liberation War honour (Bangladesh Muktijuddho Sanmanona)
Vajpayee authored several works of both prose and poetry. Some of his major publications are listed below. In addition to these, various collections were made of his speeches, articles, and slogans.
- National Integration (1961)
- New Dimensions of India’s Foreign Policy (1979)
- Gathbandhan Ki Rajneeti
- Kucha Lekha, Kucha Bhashana (1996)
- Bindu-Bindu Vicara (1997)
- Decisive Days (1999)
- Sankalp-Kaal (1999)
- Vicara-Bindu (Hindi Edition, 2000)
- India’s Perspectives on ASEAN and the Asia-Pacific Region (2003)
- Na Dainyam Na Palayanam
- Nayi Chunouti : Naya Avasar
- Kaidi Kaviraj Ki Kundalian
- Amar Aag Hai (1994)
- Meri Ikyavana Kavitaem (1995). Some of these poems were set to music by Jagjit Singh for his album Samvedna.
- Kya Khoya Kya Paya: Atal Bihari Vajapeyi, Vyaktitva Aur Kavitaem (1999)
- Values, Vision & Verses of Vajpayee: India’s Man of Destiny (2001)
- Twenty-One Poems (2003)
- Chuni Hui Kavitayein (2012)
An English translation of a selection of some of Vajpayee’s Hindi poetry was published in 2013.