Atal Bihari Vajpayee can be credited with putting the India-US relations on course for the strategic partnership that exists today
New Delhi: From foreign policy to economic reforms, former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has left a lasting impression on governance in India. The former prime minister died at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) at 5.05pm on Thursday, bringing an end to an unparalleled political legacy.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee created a separate disinvestment department in the finance ministry in 1999 and subsequently made it a ministry under Arun Shourie in 2001, despite opposition. Earlier, under Vajpayee in 1998, finance minister Yashwant Sinha said in his 1998-99 budget that the government intended to hold only 26% in non-strategic public sector undertakings (PSUs) while keeping the majority stake in strategic PSUs. With 30 strategic sales between 1999 and 2004, including Balco, Hindustan Zinc, Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd and many government-run hotels, Vajpayee’s record of disinvestment remains unsurpassed.
Foreign policy under Vajpayee saw many innovations, particularly his attempts to reset India-Pakistan ties. An agreement to launch an India-Pakistan bus link connecting New Delhi to Lahore was signed in 1999. Vajpayee himself travelled to Pakistan on the inaugural service and the two sides signed a pact agreeing to inform each other ahead of missile tests as a major confidence building measure.
The Kargil incursion by Pakistani army regulars just weeks later put paid to that effort as did an attack on India’s Parliament in December 2001 that saw India mobilise its troops on the border with Pakistan. But Vajpayee made another effort in 2003 to extend a hand of friendship to Pakistan. India and Pakistan then agreed to stop cross-border firing, an understanding that is held up as a major confidence-building measure between the two countries even now.
These two came after the unsuccessful Agra Summit in July 2001 when Vajpayee hosted the then military ruler of Pakistan general Pervez Musharraf. In 2004, Vajpayee travelled to Pakistan for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit where Pakistan agreed not to allow its soil to be used for anti-India activities.
India and China named special envoys to demarcate their unsettled border in 2003. This came after India recognised Tibet as being part of China and China recognised Sikkim as a state of India.
Vajpayee can be credited with putting the India-US relations on course for the strategic partnership that exists today. Ironically, it was India’s nuclear tests in 1998 that gave both sides the opening to rework their ties.
The initial US’ aim was “cap, roll back and eliminate" India’s nuclear programme, which was successfully resisted. The dialogue then concentrated on the removal of acrimony from the relationship and cooperation that led to the “Next Steps in the Strategic Partnership". The nuclear tests and the talks that followed laid the foundations for the landmark India-US nuclear deal that was clinched in 2008.
Freeing fuel prices
The idea of dismantling the administered price mechanism (APM) for petroleum products was first proposed by Congress Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, and set in motion by the United Front government led by Prime Minister I.K. Gujral. In April 2002, the Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government dismantled the APM that had been in existence since 1975, giving pricing power on petrol and diesel to the state-run oil marketing companies. However, with crude oil prices beginning to see increasing volatility, political support rapidly evaporated. Petrol prices were finally deregulated in June 2010 by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, with the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led NDA government decontrolling diesel prices in October 2014.
Vajpayee laid the foundation for India’s next generation infrastructure ahead of its time. His vision of joining the North-South and East-West gave birth to India’s most memorable road project called the Golden Quadrilateral, which connects Chennai, Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai through a network of highways. Another feat of his tenure was the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana to connect villages across India with all-weather roads for unconnected villages across India.
Vajpayee was one of the chief architects of India’s housing boom. Under his leadership, finance minister Sinha made the politically bold and difficult decision to reduce administered interest rates—the interest rate guaranteed on provident fund investments and small savings.
The idea of Aadhaar was first mooted after the Kargil war. According to the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), a report with a proposal for citizens in border regions to be issued identity cards was submitted to Vajpayee. A group of ministers led by L.K. Advani accepted the recommendation. Later the ministry of external affairs proposed that a national identity be issued.
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