Atal Bihari Vajpayee is an iconic leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), known for his cultural moderation, liberalism and political reasonableness. He became the Prime Minister of India thrice. It was during his tenure that India successfully conducted nuclear tests at Pokhran and renewed hopes for peace between India and Pakistan emerged with the start of the New Delhi-Lahore bus service. His government has been till date the only non-Congress government to stay in power for five years. Besides being a seasoned politician and outstanding parliamentarian, Atal Bihari Vajpayee is also a renowned poet and a highly popular personality across the political spectrum.
The Narendra Modi Government has announced the conferment of Bharat Ratna on former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. His birthday on 25 December has been declared as ‘Good Governance Day’. Famous for his oratorical skills, Vajpayee now leads a retired and reclusive life due to ill-health.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was born in a middle-class Brahmin family to Krishna Devi and Krishna Bihari Vajpayee on 25 December 1924 in Gwalior (Madhya Pradesh). His father was a poet and a school teacher. Vajpayee did his schooling from the Saraswati Shishu Mandir, Gwalior. Later, he studied at Victoria College, Gwalior – now Laxmi Bai College, for his graduation. It was at Dayanand Anglo-Vedic College, Kanpur that Vajpayee completed his post-graduation in Political Science.
Joining as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) worker in 1939, Vajpayee became a pracharak (full-time worker) in 1947. He also worked for Rashtradharma Hindi monthly, Panchjanya Hindi weekly and the dailies Swadesh and Veer Arjun.
Vajpayee chose to stay a bachelor for whole life.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee began his career in politics as a freedom fighter. Later he joined the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), a Hindu right-wing political party, under the leadership of Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee. He became national secretary of BJS in charge of the Northern region.
As the new leader of BJS, Vajpayee was elected to the Lok Sabha for the first time in 1957 from Balrampur. He rose to become the national president of the Jana Sangh in 1968. Supported by his colleagues Nanaji Deshmukh, Balraj Madhok and L K Advani, Vajpayee took the Jana Sangh to greater glory.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee participated in the Total Revolution movement launched by Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) against the Internal Emergency imposed by then prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1975. In 1977, Jana Sangh became a part of the Janata Party, the grand-alliance against the Indira Gandhi government.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee became a Union Minister in 1977 when Morarji Desai-led Janata Party coalition came to power for the first time. He became the Minister of External Affairs. As foreign minister, Vajpayee became the first person to deliver a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in Hindi. His career as a minister was short-lived as he resigned from his post following the resignation of Morarji Desai in 1979. But by then, Vajpayee had established himself as a political leader.
Vajpayee along with Lal Krishna Advani, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and others from the BJS and Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh (RSS) formed the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1980. He became a strong critic of the Congress (I) government that followed the fall of Janata Party government.
Vajpayee did not support Operation Blue Star and raised his voice against the anti-Sikh violence after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 by two of her Sikh bodyguards.
The BJP won two parliamentary seats in the 1984 elections. Vajpayee functioned as BJP President and Leader of the Opposition in the Parliament. Known for his liberal views, Vajpayee bemoaned the demolition of the Babri Mosque on 6 December 1992 and declared it as the BJP’s “worst miscalculation”.
As Prime Minister of India
By 1984 elections, the BJP had established itself as an important political party in Indian politics. Vajpayee was sworn in as the 10th Prime Minister of India following the 1996 General Elections, where the BJP emerged as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha. However, the government collapsed after only 13 days after his government could not gather support from other parties to obtain a majority. He thus became the shortest serving Prime Minister in India.
The BJP-led coalition government came back to power as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in 1998. Vajpayee was again sworn in as the Prime Minister.
Vajpayee’s second term as PM is known for Nuclear tests conducted at Pokhran desert in Rajasthan, in May 1998. Vajpayee also pushed for a peace process with Pakistan. He inaugurated the historic Delhi-Lahore bus service in February 1999. He also pitched for resolving the Kashmir dispute and other conflicts with Pakistan.
But Pakistan ditched India by launching Kargil War, wherein Pakistani soldiers infiltrated into the Kashmir Valley and captured border hilltops around the town of Kargil.
Indian army units, under Operation Vijay, fought Pakistani intruders braving heavy artillery shelling amidst extremely cold weather, and treacherous hilly terrain, and ultimately emerged victorious. However, Vajpayee’s government lasted 13 months when the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) withdrew its support to the government in mid-1999.
In the following election, however, the NDA came back with full majority and Vajpayee was able to complete five years (1999-2004) in office as a non-Congress PM for the first time. Atal Bihari Vajpayee took oath as Prime Minister of India for the third time on 13 October 1999.
However, his third term also saw India yielding to terrorists when in December 1999, Indian Airlines flight IC 814 from Kathmandu to New Delhi was hijacked and taken to Kandahar, Afghanistan. The government had to release dread terrorists including Maulana Masood Azhar from prison to secure the freedom of passengers. On the brighter side, the Vajpayee government introduced many economic and infrastructural reforms, including encouraging the private sector and foreign investments. It also undertook National Highway Development Projects and Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana. Vajpayee adopted pro-business, free-market reforms approach to boost India’s economic development.
In March 2000, Vajpayee signed the Historic Vision Document during the visit of the then US President Bill Clinton. The Declaration incorporated several strategic issues, apart from pitching for expansion in trade and economic ties between the two countries.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee again tried for peace with Pakistan during the Agra summit with the then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, but the talks failed to achieve any breakthrough as Musharraf declined to leave aside the Kashmir issue.
The Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime also witnessed an attack on Indian Parliament on 13 December 2001, when Pakistan-supported terrorists stormed the Parliament building in Delhi. They were ultimately foiled in their attempts by the Indian security forces.
Vajpayee as PM was pained when communal riots broke out in Gujarat in 2002 after the Godhra train tragedy.
The 2004 General Election brought about the downfall of the NDA, which lost almost half its seats and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) assumed the reins of power. Vajpayee refused to take up the position of the Leader of the Opposition paving the way for Lal Krishna Advani’s leadership of BJP. He now lives in retirement and seclusion owing to ill health.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj (far right) hand over the Liberation War award to Vajpayee’s family members.
Padma Vibhushan in 1992
Lit. from Kanpur University in 1993
Lokmanya Tilak Award in 1994
Best Parliamentarian Award in 1994
Bharat Ratna Pandit Govind Vallabh Pant Award in 1994
Bharat Ratna in 2015
Liberation War award (Bangladesh Muktijuddho Sanmanona) in 2015