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Overview

Atal Bihari Vajpayee (born 25 December 1924) is an Indian politician who was the 10th Prime Minister of India, first term for 13 days in 1996 and then from 1998 to 2004. A senior leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) political party, he is the first non-Indian National Congress Prime Minister to serve a full five-year term. At age 93, Vajpayee is currently the oldest living former Indian Prime Minister.

A parliamentarian for over four decades, Vajpayee was elected to the Lok Sabha (the lower house of Parliament of India) ten times, and twice to the Rajya Sabha (upper house). He also served as the Member of parliament for Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, until 2009, when he retired from active politics due to health concerns. Vajpayee was one amongst the founder members of erstwhile Bharatiya Jana Sangh, which he had also headed. He was also the Minister of External Affairs in the cabinet of Morarji Desai. When Janata government collapsed, Vajpayee restarted the Jana Sangh as the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1980.

On 25 December 2014 the office of President of India announced the Bharat Ratna award, India’s highest civilian honour, to Vajpayee. The President of India conferred Bharat Ratna to Atal Bihari Vajpayee at his residence on 27 March 2015. His birthday, 25 December, was declared “Good Governance Day“.

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 poet and a schoolmaster in his hometown. Vajpayee did his schooling from the Saraswati Shishu Mandir, Gorkhi, Bara, Gwalior. Vajpayee 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 in 1939. Influenced by Babasaheb Apte, he attended the Officers Training Camp of the RSS during 1940-44 and became a “full-time worker” in 1947, technically a pracharak. He gave up studying law due to the partition riots. He was sent as a vistarak (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. Vajpayee never married and has remained a bachelor his entire life.

Early political career (1942-1975)”]

Vajpayee’s first exposure to politics was in August 1942, when he and his elder brother Prem were arrested for 23 days during the Quit India Movement, when he was released after giving a written undertaking, expressly declaring that they would not participate in the anti-British struggle, a promise that they kept.

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 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 India’s Prime Minister.

By virtue of his oratorical and organizational skills, he became the face of the Jana Sangh. After the death of Deendayal Upadhyaya, the mantle of the leadership of Jana Sangh fell on the shoulders of a young Vajpayee. He became the national president of the Jana Sangh in 1968 and, along with Nanaji Deshmukh, Balraj Madhok and L. K. Advani, led the Jana Sangh to national prominence.

Political career (1975-1995)”]

Foreign Minister Vajpayee (far right) and Prime Minister Morarji Desai (third from right, front row) with US President Jimmy Carter during his 1978 visit to India.

From 1975 to 1977, Vajpayee was arrested along with several other opposition leaders during the Internal Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of the Indian National Congress party. In 1977, heeding the call of social reformer Jayaprakash Narayan for all the opposition parties to unite against the Congress, Vajpayee merged the Jana Sangh into the newly formed grand-alliance, the Janata Party.

Following Janata’s victory in the 1977 general elections, he became the Minister of External Affairs in Prime Minister Morarji Desai‘s cabinet. As foreign minister, that year Vajpayee became the first person to deliver a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in Hindi. By the time the Janata government crumbled in 1979, Vajpayee had established himself as an experienced statesman and a respected political leader.

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.

Vajpayee joined many of his Bharatiya Jana Sangh and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh colleagues, particularly his long-time friends L. K. Advani and Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, to form the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1980. He became the BJP’s first President. He emerged as a strong critic of the Congress (R) government that followed the Janata government.

While the BJP opposed the Sikh militancy that was rising in the state of Punjab, it also blamed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for her “divisive and corrupt politics that fostered such militancy at the expense of national unity and integrity.” The BJP was left with only two parliamentary seats in the 1984 elections. During this period, Vajpayee remained at the centre-stage as party President and Leader of the Opposition in the Parliament.

The BJP became the political voice of the Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir Movement, which was led by activists of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the RSS, and which sought to build a temple dedicated to Lord Rama in Ayodhya.

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.

As Prime Minister of India

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 pro-nationalistic sentiments. 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 Jayalalithaa withdrew 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 remaining the Prime Minister until the elections were held.

Nuclear tests

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 declared nation with nuclear weapons.

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 the intense international criticism and the steady decline in foreign investment and trade, the nuclear tests were popular domestically. Effectively the international sanctions failed completely in swaying India’s decision to weaponize their nuclear capability (especially as US sanctions against India and Pakistan were lifted after just six months), something that was planned for and anticipated by the Vajpayee administration.

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 Declaration espoused 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.

Kargil War