Atal Bihari Vajpayee (Hindi: अटल बिहारी वाजपेयी) (born 25 December 1924), is an Indian statesman, who served as the eleventh Prime Minister of India. After a brief stint as Prime Minister in 1996, Vajpayee headed a coalition government from 19 March 1998 until 19 May 2004. He served as a Member of Parliament (MP) from Lucknow until 2009, and has since retired from active politics.
Education and personal life
He earned a masters degree in political science from the Victoria College (now Laxmibai College) and DAV College, Kanpur. He is well-known for being a poet, eminent journalist, and has published a book of poetry. He is a bachelor, and has adopted daughters of Mrs & Mr. B. N. Kaul: Nandita (Nanni) and Namita (Gunu). Nandita is a doctor in US and Namita lives in Delhi. Nandita is married to Ashok Nanda, a software engineer and Namita is married to Ranjan Bhattacharya and has a daughter. He is the first and thus far, only, bachelor Prime Minister of India.
Early political career
Vajpayee’s first contact with politics occurred in 1942, when he was arrested during the Quit India movement. He soon became a close follower and aide to Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the leader of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS). Vajpayee was at Mookerjee’s side when he went on a fast-unto-death in Kashmir in 1953, to protest what the BJS claimed inferior treatment of non-Kashmiri Indian visitors in Kashmir. Mookerjee’s fast and protest ended the identity carrogram, the centerpiece of national security in the Cold War world, especially with neighboring China being a nuclear power. (In 1974, India had become the sixth nuclear power of the world when it conducted an underground nuclear test at Pokhran.) Although he resigned in 1979 when the government politically attacked the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), he had established his credentials as an experienced statesman and a respected political leader. During this tenure, he also became the first person to deliver a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in Hindi (in 1977), the “most unforgettable” moment in his life by his own admission.
The rise of the BJP
The Janata government did not last long. Morarji Desai resigned as Prime Minister, and the Janata party was dissolved soon after. The BJS had devoted political organization to sustain the coalition and was left exhausted by the internecine wars within the Janata Party.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, along with many BJS and RSS colleagues, particularly his long-time and close friends Lal Krishna Advani and Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, founded the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1980. Vajpayee became its first President. The BJP was a strong critic of the Congress (I) government that followed the Janata rule, and while it opposed the Sikh militancy that was rising in the state of Punjab, it also blamed Indira Gandhi for divisive and corrupt politics that fostered the militancy at national expense. Leader Darasingh opines that Vajpayee thus “brought in Hindu-Sikh harmony.”
Although it supported Operation Bluestar, the BJP strongly protested violence against Sikhs in Delhi that broke out in 1984 following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two of her Sikh bodyguards. Vajpayee was known and commended for protecting Sikhs against Congress-followers seeking to avenge the death of their leader. The BJP was left with only two parliamentary seats in the 1984 elections; the party, however, had established itself in the mainstream of Indian politics, and soon began expanding its organization to attract young Indians throughout the country. During this period Vajpayee remained center-stage as party President and Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, but increasingly hard-line Hindu nationalists began to rise within the party and define its politics.
The BJP became the political voice of the Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir Movement, which was led by activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the RSS, and was seeking to build a temple dedicated to Lord Rama at the site of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. Hindu activists believed the site was the birthplace of the Lord, and thus qualified as one of the most sacred sites of Hinduism.
Main article: Liberhan Commission#Vajpayee angle
On 6 December 1992, hundreds of VHP and BJP activists broke down an organized protest into a frenzied attack, and brought down the mosque. Over the following weeks, waves of violence between Hindus and Muslims erupted in various parts of the country, killing over 1000 people. The VHP was banned by the government, and many BJP leaders including Lal Krishna Advani were arrested briefly for provoking the destruction. Although widely condemned by many across the country for playing politics with sensitive issues, the BJP won the support of millions of conservative Hindus, as well as national prominence.
With victory in assembly elections of Gujarat and Maharashtra in March 1995, and a good performance in the elections to the Karnataka assembly in December 1994 propelled the BJP to the centerstage. During the BJP session at Mumbai in November 1995, BJP President L.K.Advani declared that Vajpayee would be the Prime Minister of India if the BJP won next parliamentary elections held in May 1996.klsdfjklajsdfkljasl;df
Prime Minister of India
Main article: Premiership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee
First Term: May 1996
Political energy and expansion made BJP the single-largest political party in the Lok Sabha elected in 1996. Asked to form the government, A.B. Vajpayee was sworn in as Prime Minister, but the BJP failed to gather enough support from other parties to form a majority. Vajpayee resigned after just 13 days, when it became clear that he could not garner a majority.
Second Term: 1998-1999
After the fall of two governments by the third-front between 1996 and 1998, the Parliament was dissolved and fresh elections were held. These elections again put the BJP at the head. This time, a cohesive bloc of political parties lined up with it to form the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and A.B. Vajpayee was sworn in as the Prime Minister. The NDA proved its majority in parliament. Towards the end of 1998 however, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) under J. Jayalalitha withdrew its support from the 13-month old government. The government lost the ensuing vote of confidence motion by a single vote. As the Opposition was unable to come up with the numbers to form the new government, the country returned to elections with Vajpayee remaining the “care-taker Prime Minister”.
Nuclear bomb testing
Main article: Pokhran-II
In May 1998, India conducted five underground nuclear tests in Pokhran, Rajasthan. The five tests shocked and surprised the world, especially considering that the government had been in power for only a month. Two weeks later, Pakistan responded with its own nuclear weapon tests, making it the newest declared nation with nuclear weapons.
While some nations, such as Russia and France, endorsed India’s right to defensive nuclear power, others including the US, Canada, Japan, the UK and the European Union imposed sanctions on the sale of military equipment and high-tech scientific information, resources and technology to India or Pakistan. In spite of the intense international criticism and the steady decline in foreign investment and trade, the nuclear tests were popular domestically and the Vajpayee’s popularity and the BJP’s prestige rose in response.
During his administration, Vajpayee introduced many important economic and infrastructural reforms domestically including, encouraging the private sector and foreign investments; reducing governmental waste; encouraging research and development and privatizing of some government owned corporations.
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,</ref> The NDA proved its majority in parliament. Towards the end of 1998 however, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) under J. Jayalalitha withdrew its support from the 13-month old government. Vajpayee initiated a new peace process aimed towards permanently resolving the Kashmir dispute and other territorial/nuclear/strategic conflicts with Pakistan. The resultant Lahore Declaration espoused a commitment to dialogue, expanded trade relations and the goal of denuclearized South Asia, and mutual friendship. 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 party had continually threatened to withdraw support from the coalition and national leaders repeatedly flew down from Delhi to Chennai to pacify the AIADMK chief J. Jayalalitha. Finally, 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.
Main article: Kargil War
More importantly and soon after, it was revealed that millitants 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 centered around the town of Kargil, but also included the Batalik and Akhnoor sectors and include artillery exchanges at the Siachen Glacier.
Indian army units were rushed into Kashmir in response. Operation Vijay (1999), launched in June 1999, saw the Indian military fighting thousands of militants and soldiers amidst 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 600-4000 Pakistani militants and soldiers died as well. India pushed back the Pakistani militants and Northern Light Infantry soldiers. Almost 70% of the territory was recaptured by India. With news of Pakistan planning to launch a nuclear attack or a nuclear threat in the face of a lost war with India, Nawaz Sharif was summoned to the US by Bill Clinton. Pakistan’s army claims to have shot down 2 air force jets and the Indian Air Force acknowledged one loss to enemy missiles and attributed the other loss to engine flameout. The mutilation of the body of pilot Ajay Ahuja inflamed public opinion in India. After heavy losses and a recalcitrant general in Musharraf, and with both the United States and China refusing to condone the incursion or threaten India to stop its military operations, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif asked the remaining militants to stop and withdraw to positions along the LoC. The militants were not willing to accept orders from Nawaz Sharif while 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
On 13 October 1999, Atal Bihari Vajpayee took oath as Prime Minister of India for the third time. The BJP-led NDA had won 303 seats in the 543 seat Lok Sabha in the aftermath of Kargil operations, thereby securing a comfortable, stable majority. The coalition government that was formed lasted its full term of 5 years – the only non-Congress government to do so.
In October 1999, General Pervez Musharraf, chief of Pakistan’s army and the chief architect of the Kargil incursions, seized power from the civilian, democratic government of Pakistan, and established martial law in Pakistan.
Indian Airlines hijack
Main article: Indian Airlines Flight 814
A national crisis popped up in December 1999, when Indian Airlines flight (IC 814) en-route Kathmandu to New Delhi was hijacked by five Pakistani terrorists and flown to Taliban ruled Afghanistan. The hijackers made several demands including the release certain Kashmiri terrorists like Maulana Masood Azhar, from prison. The government ultimately caved in and Jaswant Singh, the Indian External Affairs minister, flew with the terrorists to Afghanistan and exchanged them for the passengers. No explanation was given by the Indian government for the External Affairs minister personally escorting the terrorists. The crisis also worsened the relationship between India and Pakistan, as the hijacked plane was allowed to re-fuel in Lahore.
National Highways Development Project, foreign policy and economic reform
In March 2000 Bill Clinton, the President of the United States, paid a state visit to India. His was the first state visit to India by a US President in 22 years. President Clinton’s visit to India was hailed as a significant milestone in the relations between the two countries. Since the visit followed barely two years after the Pokhran tests, and one year after the Kargil invasion and the subsequent coup in Pakistan, it was read to reflect a major shift in the post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy. The Indian Prime Minister and the U.S. President discussed strategic issues, but the chief achievement was a significant expansion in trade and economic ties.Historic Vision Document on the future course of relations between the two countries was signed by Prime Minister Vajpayee and President Clinton 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 Mandir 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. The BJP was however accused of saffron-ising (saffron is the color of the flag of the RSS, symbol of the Hindu nationalism movement) the official state education curriculum and apparatus. Home Minister L.K. Advani and HRD minister Murli Manohar Joshi were indicted in the 1992 Babri Mosque demolition case for inciting the mob of activists. The RSS also routinely criticized the government for free-market policies which introduced foreign goods and competition at the expense of home industries and products.
Vajpayee’s administration earned the ire of many unionized workers groups and government workers for their aggressive campaign to privatize government owned corporations. Vajpayee promoted pro-business, free market reforms to reinvigorate India’s economic transformation and expansion that were started by former PM Narasimha Rao but stalled after 1996 due to unstable governments and the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Increased competitiveness, extra funding and support for the information technology and high-tech industries, improvements in infrastructure, deregulation of trade, investments and corporate laws – all increased foreign capital investment and set in motion an economic expansion.
These couple of years of reform however were accompanied by infighting in the administration and confusion regarding the direction of government. Cabinet portfolios were created and shuffled every six months apparently to pacify restless coalition partners. 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 incriminating videos of the BJP President Bangaru Laxman, senior army officers and NDA members accepting bribes from journalists posing as agents and businessmen. While the scandals were not linked to Vajpayee personally, the Defence Minister George Fernandes was forced to resign following this Barak Missile Deal Scandal, another scandal involving the botched supplies of coffins for the soldiers killed in Kargil, and the finding of an inquiry commission that the Government could have prevented the Kargil invasion. These developments as well as an ambiguous response of the economy to the reforms, reduced the Vajpayee administration’s popularity and undermined its future.
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. His second-major attempt to move beyond the stalemate tensions 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.
In 2001, the Vajpayee government launched the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, which aimed at improving the quality of education in primary and secondary schools.
Attack on Parliament
Main article: 2001 Indian Parliament attack
Main article: 2001–2002 India–Pakistan standoff
On 13 December 2001, a group of masked, armed men with fake IDs stormed the Parliament building 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. Coming just three months after the September 11 attacks upon the United States, this fresh escalation instantly enraged the nation. Although the Government of Pakistan officially condemned the attack, Indian intelligence reports pointed the finger at a conspiracy rooted in Pakistan. Prime Minister Vajpayee ordered a mobilization 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 administrations passed the Prevention of Terrorist 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 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 sheela 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 organization hung over the nation.
The greatest blot on his copybook may be the Gujarat riots of 2002. More than 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, died in some of the worst religious violence in India in decades. The riots followed an attack on a train in which 59 Hindu activists were killed. Many criticised the government for being slow to react, in particular because the state was also governed by the BJP.
Remainder of term
In late 2002 and 2003 the government pushed economic reforms, and the country’s GDP growth accelerated at record levels, exceeding 6-7%. Increasing foreign investment, modernization of public and industrial infrastructure, the creation of jobs, a rising high-tech and IT industry and urban modernization and expansion improved the nation’s national 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.
In August 2003, Prime Minister Vajpayee announced before 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 recognized Tibet, as a part of China, which was reacted to positively, by the Chinese leadership, who the following year, recognized Sikkim, as a part of India. Sino-Indian Relations, improved greatly, in the following years.
In November-December 2003, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won three major state elections, fought mainly on development issues, without ideological campaigns. A major public relations campaign was launched to reach out to Muslims and stop the 2002 controversies from haunting the party’s future. But the attention of the media and of millions now moved from Vajpayee to his more possible successor, L.K. Advani, although the question was never directly raised or contested in any way. Vajpayee’s age, failing health and diminished physical and mental vigor were obvious factors in such speculations. 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 Venkiah Naidu used mythological references to depict Vajpayee as a Vikas Purush, (Man of Progress), comparing him to Bhishma Pitamah of the Mahabharata epic, a man respected by all political outfits and hundreds of millions of people. Advani was called the “Loh Purush” (Iron Man), a more potent reference suggestive of future developments.
As the BJP prepared for general elections in 2004, Vajpayee was still the choice of the BJP, and crucially of the wider NDA for the Prime Minister’s job.
Post 2004 elections
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was widely expected to retain power after the 2004 general election. The parliament had been dissolved before the completion of term in order to capitalize on the perceived ‘feel-good factor’ and BJP’s recent successes in Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh. The BJP hoped to capitalise on the slogan “India Shining” and released many ads touting the economic growth of the nation.
However, the coalition sidestepped controversial and ideological questions in favour of bread-and-butter economic issues during the campaign and subsequently lost almost half 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 Dr Manmohan Singh.
Vajpayee attended the swearing-in ceremony of the new government despite his party’s decision to boycott it. Vajpayee was criticized for sacrificing core issues like Hindutva and the Ram Temple inorder to please Muslim voters (the BJP lost the Muslim vote by a heavy margin). Vajpayee expressed his anger and frustration at being blamed and at a high-level party meeting, he decided to give up the position of the Leader of the Opposition to Lal Krishna Advani. However, he retained his post as Chairman of the NDA.
In December 2005, Vajpayee announced his retirement from active politics, declaring that he would not participate in the next general election. At a rally in the western city of Mumbai, Vajpayee said “I will not participate in any electoral politics. There are many other leaders to take forward the work which I and other senior leaders have been doing. In a now famous statement at the BJP’s silver Jubilee rally at Mumbai’s historic Shivaji Park, Vajpayee announced that “from now onwards, 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 hospitalized at AIIMS for chest infection and fever and on 6 February 2009 he was put on ventilator as his conditioned worsened. It may be noted that at 84, he does not have diabetes or high blood pressure and he is on one kidney for the past 25 years.Vajpayee underwent several knee replacement surgeries during the 90’s. Unable to participate in the campaign for the 2009 general election due to his health, he wrote a letter urging voters in his Lucknow constituency to back BJP candidate Lalji Tandon. Finally Lalji Tandon was able to retain the Lucknow seat of Vajpayee even though NDA suffered electoral reverses in that state by just managing to win 15 of the total 80 seats. The tall apolitical image of Vajpayee was said to be the main reason behind Lalji’s success in Lucknow even though BJP’s position was poor in Uttar Pradesh.
‘RSS chief, K.S. Sudershan, charged the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, with “lacking clarity of vision” on the Kashmir issue’ .’The Congress took a dig at former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for his “guilt by association” in the demolition of Babri Masjid saying he could have otherwise quit the BJP after the incident’..’Criticism from the Opposition during the crucial debate on censure motion on Gujarat in Lok Sabha. Singled out for failing to remove Narendra Modi to bring back normalcy in the state, Atal Behari Vajpayee faced the harshest criticism from the leader of Oppoition Sonia Gandhi.’
During his tenure, Vajpayee’s health and lifestyle has been the subject of intense speculation and criticism. Time correspondent, Alex Perry’s piece on Vajpayee “Asleep at the Wheel” spoke in detail about the Prime Minister’s health condition.