Overview of life
Atal Bihari Vajpayee (born 25 December 1924) is an Indian politician who was the 10th Prime Minister of India, first for 13 days in 1996 and then from 1998 to 2004. A leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), he is the first Prime Minister from outside the Indian National Congress party to serve a full five-year term. At age 92, Vajpayee is currently the oldest living former India 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. In a special gesture, the President of India conferred Bharat Ratna to Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 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 studied from the Government Higher secondary school, 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 Dayanand Anglo-Vedic 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
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 only after giving a written undertaking, expressly declaring not to participate in any of the anti-British struggle.
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 Mookerjee. In 1954, Vajpayee was with Mookerjee 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 India’s Parliament, 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)
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.
Vajpayee served as the Prime Minister of India between 1996 and 2004 in three non-consecutive terms.
First term: May 1996
See also: First Vajpayee Ministry
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
See also: Second Vajpayee Ministry
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 J. Jayalalitha 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.
In May 1998, India conducted five underground nuclear tests in Pokhran desert in Rajasthan, 24 yrs after India conducted its first nuclear test Pokhran-I 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, 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.
It was revealed that militants 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 centred around the town of Kargil, but also included the Batalik and Akhnoor sectors and artillery exchanges at the Siachen Glacier.
Indian army units were swiftly rushed into Kashmir in response. Operation Vijay, launched in June 1999, saw the Indian military fighting thousands of militants and soldiers in the midst of 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 600-4,000 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 in the face of a loss in the war with India, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was summoned to the US by Bill Clinton and warned against any such action.
After Pakistan suffered heavy losses, and with both the United States and China refusing to condone the incursion or threaten India to stop its military operations, General Musharraf was recalcitrant and Nawaz Sharif asked the remaining militants to stop and withdraw to positions along the LoC. The militants were not willing to accept orders from Sharif but 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. The victory in Kargil bolstered the image of Vajpayee and he was hailed across the country for his bold and strong leadership. On 26 July 2012, designated as ‘Kargil Vijay Diwas’, BJP President Nitin Gadkari unveiled a wax statue of Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Mumbai. The statue is to be put up at a wax museum in Lonavala.
Third term: 1999–2004
See also: Third Vajpayee MinistryIn the 1999 general elections, the BJP-led NDA won 303 seats out of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, in the aftermath of the Kargil operations, thereby securing a comfortable and stable majority. On 13 October 1999, Atal Bihari Vajpayee took oath as Prime Minister of India for the third time.
Indian Airlines hijack
A national crisis emerged in December 1999, when Indian Airlines flight IC 814 from Kathmandu to New Delhi was hijacked by five terrorists and flown to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The hijackers made several demands including the release of certain terrorists like Maulana Masood Azhar from prison. Under extreme pressure, the government ultimately caved in. Jaswant Singh, the Minister for External Affairs at the time, flew with the terrorists to Afghanistan and exchanged them for the passengers.
A.B.Vajpayee meeting President Bush in the White House in 2001.
National highway project, foreign policy and economic reforms
Main articles: National Highway Development Project and Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana
During his administration, Vajpayee introduced many domestic economic and infrastructural reforms, including encouraging the private sector and foreign investments, reducing governmental waste, encouraging research and development and privatisation of some government owned corporations. The UPA Government on 1 July 2013 accepted before Supreme Court that National Democratic Alliance Government led by Vajpayee has developed half the roads in last 32 years in their 5-year term.
Vajpayee’s pet projects were the National Highway Development Project and Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana.
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 came 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 major achievement was a significant expansion in trade and economic ties. The 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 temple 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. On 17 January 2000, there were reports of the RSS and some BJP hard-liners threatening to restart the Jan Sangh, the precursor to the BJP, because of their discontent over Atal Bihari Vajpayee rule. Former president of the Jan Sangh, Balraj Madhok, had written a letter to the then RSS chief, Rajendra Singh for support. The BJP was, however, accused of saffronising (saffron being the colour of the flag of the RSS, symbol of the Hindu nationalism movement) the official state education curriculum and apparatus. Also, Home Minister L.K. Advani and Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi were indicted in the 1992 Babri Mosque demolition case for inciting a mob of activists. Vajpayee himself came under public scrutiny owing to his controversial speech one day prior to the mosque demolition. The RSS also routinely criticised the government for free-market policies which introduced foreign goods and competition at the expense of ‘swadeshi’ industries and products.
Vajpayee’s administration earned the ire of many trade unions and government workers for its aggressive campaign to privatise government owned corporations. Vajpayee promoted pro-business, free market reforms to reinvigorate India’s economic transformation and expansion that were started by the 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 sector 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.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin.
These couple of years of reform however were accompanied by infighting in the administration and confusion regarding the direction of government. 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 the sting operation video named operation west end showing videos of the BJP President Bangaru Laxman, senior army officers and NDA members accepting bribes from journalists posing as agents and businessmen. The Defence Minister George Fernandes was forced to resign following the Barak Missile Deal Scandal, another scandal involving the botched supplies of coffins for the soldiers killed in Kargil, and the findings of an inquiry commission that the Government could have prevented the Kargil invasion.
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 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 famous Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, which aimed at improving the quality of education in primary and secondary schools.
2001 attack on Parliament
Main article: 2001 Indian Parliament attack
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 to a conspiracy rooted in Pakistan.
Prime Minister Vajpayee ordered a mobilisation 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 administration also 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 his government 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 shila 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 organisation hung over the nation. But to the relief of Vajpayee, his government was able to tide over this crisis rather smoothly.
2002 Gujarat violence
Modi and former Prime Minister Vajpayee looking at a blue-covered report
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee with Narendra Modi in 2002.
In 2002, Hindu-Muslim violence in the state Gujarat killed more than 1,000 people. Vajpayee officially condemned the violence.
Later, Vajpayee made controversial remarks: “Wherever there are Muslims in large numbers, they do not want to live in peace.” The remarks were clarified by the Prime Minister’s Office as being taken out of context.
Vajpayee was accused of doing nothing to stop the violence, and later admitted mistakes in the handling the events. K.R. Narayanan, then president of India, also blamed Vajpayee’s government for failing to quell the violence.
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, modernisation of public and industrial infrastructure, the creation of jobs, a rising high-tech and IT industry and urban modernisation and expansion improved the nation’s international 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. He faced stiff opposition from other equally strong organisations in the RSS family such as the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh and the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh. However, he continued with his aggressive economic reform policy.
In August 2003, he announced before the 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 recognised Tibet as a part of China, which was welcomed by the Chinese leadership, who in the following year, recognised 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 communal riots controversy 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 vigour were obvious factors in such speculation.
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 Venkaiah Naidu used mythological references to depict Vajpayee as Vikas Purush (Man of Progress) and Advani as Loh Purush(Iron Man).
As the BJP prepared for general elections in 2004, Vajpayee was still the choice of the BJP and of the wider NDA, for the Prime Minister’s job.
On 29 June 2002 Atal Bihari Vajpayee while dedicating his collection of poems translated in Tamil, recalled his friendship with C.N. Annadurai and claimed that he was not opposed to Hindi and appreciated Vajpayee’s language skills. Annadurai however, was against imposition of the language.
Travel and diplomatic assignments
Vajpayee has visited several countries, first in 1965 as a member of the Parliamentary Goodwill Mission to East Africa. He was also part of the Parliamentary Delegations to Australia in 1967, the European Parliament in 1983, and Canada in 1987. He was part of the official Indian Delegation to Commonwealth Parliamentary Association meetings held in Canada in 1966 and 1994, Zambia in 1980, and the Isle of Man in 1984. He was in the Indian delegation to the Inter-Parliamentary Union Conference, Japan in 1974, Sri Lanka in 1975; and Switzerland in 1984. He was a regular at the UN General Assembly, having been part of the Indian Delegations in 1988, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1996. He led the Indian Delegation to the Human Rights Commission Meeting at Geneva in 1993 and the Delegation of Standing Committees of External Affairs to Gulf countries i.e. Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait.
In December 2005, Vajpayee announced his retirement from active politics, declaring that he would not contest in the next general election. In a famous statement at the BJP’s silver Jubilee rally at Mumbai’s historic Shivaji Park, Vajpayee announced that “Henceforth, 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 referred to as the Bhishma Pitamah of Indian Politics by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his speech in the Rajya Sabha.
Vajpayee was hospitalised at AIIMS for chest infection and fever on 6 February 2009. He was put on ventilator support as his condition worsened but he eventually recuperated and was later discharged. Unable to participate in the campaign for the 2009 general election due to his poor health, he wrote a letter urging voters to back the BJP. His protege Lalji Tandon was able to retain the Lucknow seat even though the NDA suffered electoral reverses all over the country. The tall apolitical image of Vajpayee was said to be the main reason behind Lalji’s success in Lucknow even though BJP’s performance was poor elsewhere in Uttar Pradesh. Currently, he is the oldest living former Prime Minister of India.
Personal life and interests
Vajpayee has an adopted daughter, Namita. He is fond of Indian music and dance. He loves nature and one of his favourite retreats is Manali in Himachal Pradesh.
Vajpayee has said about his poetry, “My poetry is a declaration of war, not an exordium to defeat. It is not the defeated soldier’s drumbeat of despair, but the fighting warrior’s will to win. It is not the despirited voice of dejection but the stirring shout of victory.”
Vajpayee underwent knee replacement surgery at Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai in 2001. He suffered a stroke in 2009 which impaired his speech. His health has been a major source of concern and those in the know say he is often confined to a wheelchair and fails to recognise people. He is said to be suffering from dementia and long-term diabetes. He is not known to have attended any public event in recent years. He rarely ventures out of the house, except for checkups at the All India Institutes of Medical Sciences.
- 1992, Padma Vibhushan
- 1993, D. Lit. from Kanpur University
- 1994, Lokmanya Tilak Award
- 1994, Best Parliamentarian Award
- 1994, Bharat Ratna Pandit Govind Vallabh Pant Award
- 2015, Bharat Ratna
- 2015, Liberation War award (Bangladesh Muktijuddho Sanmanona)