New Delhi: Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who has passed away at the age of 93, was the first non-Congress prime minister of India to complete a full term in office, a historic accomplishment that in turn paved the way for Narendra Modi to storm into office just over a decade later as the second Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prime minister.
A veteran of the non-Congress opposition with his roots in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Vajpayee’s formal career in politics began with his election to the Lok Sabha in 1957 as a young legislator and peaked in 1996 when he powered the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the first of three non-consecutive wins in general elections.
The third time around, he led a stable government that lasted the full term—a first for a non-Congress administration.
Reputed for his oratorical skills, and much respected as a consummate politician and statesman, Vajpayee shook off the shock of a 15-day premiership in 1996 to bounce back two years later, and remained in the top job until 2004.
Also read: The last photograph of Atal Bihari Vajpayee
Vajpayee’s tenure was marked for its tenacity—his name Atal means determined or immovable—with the prime minister refusing to budge in the face of fierce Western pressure after India conducted five nuclear tests, less than two months after his second term, in May 1998.
In domestic politics Vajpayee led the way for his party to garner regional political support in the form of the National Democratic Alliance or NDA, a remarkable exercise in coalition politics that continues to serve the BJP well to this day.
Vajpayee, who breathed his last after coping with ill-health for nearly a decade, lived his life with an indomitable spirit, his friends recall.
“We had not performed well in Delhi elections when Vajpayee and L.K. Advani, who were sitting at the office, decided to watch a movie to relax. Without looking at the name of the movie that was playing in the theatre at Paharganj, the two leaders went inside. The movie which was playing was Phir Subah Hogi (A New Dawn Will Come). Vajpayee turned to Advani and said there would be a new dawn for the party," said a senior BJP leader on condition of anonymity.
Born into a middle class family in Gwalior on 25 December 1924, Vajpayee’s first brush with politics came in 1942 when he joined the Quit India Movement against the British. After completing his education, he became a journalist and then joined the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), formed by Shyama Prasad Mookerjee in 1951. From being political secretary to Mookerjee, Vajpayee entered the Lok Sabha from Balrampur in Uttar Pradesh in 1957. He was a member of the Lok Sabha for 11 terms and of the Rajya Sabha for two terms.
After playing a decisive role in the fight against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule, Vajpayee became external affairs minister in the 1977 Janata Party government—the first non-Congress government in India. And his experience in external affairs defined his tenure as Prime Minister.
Two milestones etch out his career—he took India decisively over the nuclear threshold which in turn set the stage for a recast of ties with the US. The tests and the dialogue with the US also paved the way for the landmark India-US nuclear deal that was clinched in 2008.
In May 1998, during Vajpayee’s prime ministership, India conducted five nuclear tests and immediately came under a whole host of international sanctions from the US, EU and other countries.
Popular opinion has it that preparations for the tests took place during Vajpayee’s predecessor PV Narasimha Rao’s tenure in 1995 but Rao gave in to US pressure. When Vajpayee became prime minister for the second time in 1998, he gave the go-ahead for the tests within days of assuming office.
Not only did India successfully weather all the sanctions post the nuclear tests, Vajpayee also deputed a trusted colleague—then deputy chairman of the Planning Commission and later Foreign minister Jaswant Singh—to begin talks with the US on India’s nuclear programme. The US aim was “cap, roll back and eliminate" India’s nuclear programme which India successfully resisted under Vajpayee. As the India-US dialogue progressed, the US understood that India’s nuclear programme was like the “genie that had escaped the bottle," said a person familiar with the developments who did not wish to be named.
Talks then focussed on ways to cooperate and remove the acrimony from the relationship which led to the “Next Steps in the Strategic Partnership"—in many ways the precursor to the India-US nuclear deal.
The second aspect of Vajpayee’s foreign policy that will be remembered is his outreach to Pakistan. In February 1999, India and Pakistan launched the New Delhi Lahore bus service. That Vajpayee arrived in Lahore by the inaugural service was seen as a major effort by India to strike peace with Pakistan. Vajpayee spent two days in Pakistan during which he visited the Minar-e-Pakistan—a landmark in Lahore from where in 1940 the All India Muslim League called for the creation of a separate state of Pakistan.
Vajpayee’s visit to the Minar-e-Pakistan was “deliberate," said one of aides, who did not wish to be named. “It was aimed at reassuring Pakistan that India wants peace," he said.
But in May 1999, Pakistan launched a stealth attack on India—sending in Pakistan army regulars in the guise of militants who captured commanding positions in Kashmir’s Kargil region and tried to cut off the Srinagar-Leh highway. It took the Indian Army and Air Force two months, sacrificing some 500 lives, to evict intruders. Famously, US president Bill Clinton told Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif to ensure that Pakistan respects the sanctity of the Line of Control border in Kashmir.
His third term as prime minister saw a terrorist attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001 which was traced to the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist groups—an incident that brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war once again. India and Pakistan mobilised troops on their borders and only pulled them back after successful polls in Jammu and Kashmir in October 2000. But the two acts of bad faith by Pakistan did not stop Vajpayee from extending “a hand of friendship" to India’s western neighbour.
Once again, the quality of determination marked his politics.
In April 2003, on a trip to Jammu and Kashmir, Vajpayee extended a surprise hand of friendship to Pakistan. After considerable diplomatic homework, Vajpayee visited Islamabad in 2004 and signed a bilateral pact in which Islamabad said it would not allow any territory under its control to be used against India. The 2004 pact is seen as on a par with the landmark Simla Agreement of 1972 in importance as it commits Pakistan to ensure anti-India operations do not take place on its territory.
In July 2001, India under Vajpayee invited military ruler Pervez Musharraf for a summit in Agra. The summit did not yield any results but it was seen as a strong attempt by the Vajpayee government to bring peace to the subcontinent.
With China too, Vajpayee managed to ensure stability in ties. In 2003, India and China agreed to have special representatives to ensure border talks made progress. It was during this period that China recognised Sikkim as a part of India in return for India agreeing to recognise Tibet as a part of China. This was particularly remarkable, as it followed a rocky period in ties when the US had leaked a confidential letter from Vajpayee to Clinton in which he had cited China as the primary reason for India going nuclear.