Atal Bihari Vajpayee: A statesman, parliamentarian and prime minister who defied convention

He became the 10th prime minister of India after the BJP emerged as the single-largest party in the Lok Sabha in the 10th Lok Sabha elections in 1996. 

Atal Bihari Vajpayee: A statesman, parliamentarian and prime minister who defied convention
After the BJP-led NDA suffered a shock defeat in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, Atal Bihari Vajpayee took a back seat and went into political retirement. Photo credit: Zee News

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the leader who became the first non-Congress leader to complete the full five-year term as the prime minister of India, breathed his last at 5:05 pm on August 16, 2018, at the All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS), New Delhi. A visionary and iconic leader with great oratory skills, Atal Bihari Vajpayee chose to be a bachelor for life and was among the founding members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He enjoyed unparalleled respect and love cutting across party lines for his moderate stand and taking the consensus route to resolve any difference.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee became the 10th prime minister of India after the BJP emerged as the single-largest party in the Lok Sabha in the 10th Lok Sabha elections. But his first stint lasted just 13 days and he resigned after failing to muster the numbers required to win the vote of confidence. Almost 20 months later, Vajpayee got another chance to take oath as the prime minister for the second time after the BJP became the single largest party following the 1998 Lok Sabha elections. He took oath on March 19, 1998 after the BJP joined hands with regional parties to form the National Democratic Alliance and won the vote of confidence.

His second stint as the prime minister, too, ended prematurely after 13 months as the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) withdrew support and he lost the confidence motion by just one vote. But his second term is marked by two defining moments of Indian history.

The first is India coming out in the open and declaring itself a nuclear-weapons state by conducting the Pokhran-II series of five nuclear bomb explosions in May 1998 and the ‎Kargil War in May-July 1999 which saw the Indian Army and Indian Air Force pushing back the Pakistani Army which had crossed the Line of Control (LoC) to occupy the icy heights in Kargil district of Jammu and Kashmir and adjoining areas. The Kargil War is also remembered as Pakistan's betrayal after Vajpayee tried to bring peace between the two nuclear-armed neighbours by starting the New Delhi-Lahore bus service and taking the first one to meet his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif even as Pakistani troops were crossing the LoC in Kargil. 

The country was forced into the 13th Lok Sabha elections soon after and the BJP with 182 seats once again came out as the single-largest party and with the support of its allies formed a government. Vajpayee was sworn in for the third time as the prime minister of India and went on to complete his term.

His third term saw another dramatic event when five Pakistani terrorists hijacked the Indian Airlines IC-814 Kathmandu-Delhi flight on December 24, 1999. The hijackers demanded the release of dreaded terrorists Maulana Masood Azhar, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and Mushtaq Zargar in exchange for the 180 passengers and crew on board. India failed to neutralise the hijackers when the plane was on its soil and the flight finally landed in Kandahar in Afghanistan which was firmly under Taliban's control. The three terrorists Maulana Masood Azhar, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and Mushtaq Zargar had to be released in lieu of the captives.

Despite the bitterness of Kargil War, Vajpayee once again tried for peace between with Pakistan when he invited its president Pervez Musharraf, the architect of the misadventure in May-July 1999. He met Musharraf in Agra in July 2001 but the talks were a failure as the Pakistani dictator refused to move beyond the Kashmir issue. A few months later on December 13, 2001, a group of Pakistani terrorists belonging to Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) attacked Parliament while the House was in session. While all the terrorists were killed, India mobilised its military and was involved in a tense stand-off with Pakistan for almost 10 months.

He also spoke about following the "raj dharma" following communal riots in Gujarat in 2002 after the Sabarmati Express was burnt at Godhra killing 59 kar sewaks.

After the BJP-led NDA suffered a shock defeat in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections which was called six months before schedule, Vajpayee took a back seat and went into political retirement. He soon started to suffer from age-related ailments and led a reclusive life at his 6-A, Krishna Menon Marg, New Delhi residence.

Vajpayee was awarded India's highest civilian honour Bharat Ratna on his birthday - December  25, 2014, by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, only the second BJP leader to become the prime minister after him. The then President Pranab Mukherjee conferred the award to Vajpayee at his residence on March 27, 2015.

Born in pre-independence India at Madhya Pradesh's Gwalior on December 25, 1924, in a middle-class Brahmin family, Vajpayee's father Krishna Bihari Vajpayee was a poet and a school teacher and his mother Krishna Devi a housewife. He went to Saraswati Shishu Mandir, Gwalior and later graduated from Victoria College (now Laxmi Bai College), Gwalior with distinction in Hindi, English and Sanskrit. He went on to complete his post-graduation in Political Science from Dayanand Anglo-Vedic College, Kanpur.

He joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1939 and became a pracharak in 1947, the year India gained independence from the British rule. He also had a brush with journalism when he wrote for Rashtradharma Hindi monthly, Panchjanya Hindi weekly and two dailies - Swadesh and Veer Arjun.

He took part in the freedom struggle and was impressed by Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee. He soon joined Bharatiya Jana Sangh, a political outfit founded by Mookherjee and was given the charge of Northern India as its secretary. He won his first Lok Sabha elections as a Bharatiya Jana Sangh candidate in 1957 from Balrampur in Uttar Pradesh. He won Lok Sabha elections in 1967, 71, 77 and 80. He lost the 1984 Lok Sabha elections but won five consecutive terms from 1989 to 2004. He also took part in the massive people's movement spearheaded by Jayaprakash Narayan against the then government of Indira Gandhi. He was also jailed during the Emergency.

After winning the 1977 elections in which the Congress was routed and the Janata Party formed a coalition government under the prime ministership of Morarji Desai, Vajpayee was made the External Affairs Minister. He made one of his most famous speeches when he spoke in Hindi at the United Nations General Assembly. After the Congress (I) under Indira Gandhi won the 1980 Lok Sabha elections, Vajpayee with Lal Krishna Advani, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and a few others formed the BJP on April 6, 1980.

Maintaining a moderate stand even as his colleagues supported the hardline Hindutva, Vajpayee always advocated dialogue to resolve a dispute. He had called the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, by a group of kar sewaks "very unfortunate". "It should not have happened. We tried to prevent it but we did not succeed. We are sorry for that," he had said about the demolition which led to riots at several places in the country.

From just two seats in the 1984 Lok Sabha, the BJP went on to become the single-largest party in the 1996, 1998 and 1999 Lok Sabha elections and tasted power at the Centre too. Vajpayee's charisma was such that even his fiercest critics and rivals never ever personally attacked him. With his death, India has lost a statesman who stood tall and was always willing to give peace one more chance.

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