Remembering Atal Bihari Vajpayee, perhaps the greatest statesman India has witnessed, we look back at the different stages of his life.
It was the April of 1980 when a new party was born on India’s political map- The Bharatiya Janata Party. “Andhera Chhatega, Suraj Nikalega, Kamal Khilega.” This is how the party chief Atal Bihari Vajpayee introduced this new political party to India. True to his words, the dream was realized more than 15 years later. The victory of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and that of BJP was significant. His government was the first non-Congress government in India’s 50 years long political history to complete its term. But that’s not the only reason why the former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee will be immortalized in India’s political history.
For the parliamentarian who had spent more than 4 decades inside the temple of democracy, the praise- “right man in the wrong party” wasn’t new. Some even described him as the “Nehru of the right”. He even mentioned this in his speech in the Lok Sabha before the trust vote in 1998. However, he managed to break the spell and the very next year, NDA led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s BJP swung back to power.
The journey of Atal Bihari Vajpayee is as mesmerizing as it is inspiring. Remembering perhaps the greatest statesman India has witnessed, we look back at the different stages of his life. A journey down memory lane through pictures:
- The Angry Young man
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was born to Krishna Devi and Krishna Bihari Vajpayee on 25 December 1924 in Gwalior. His father was a poet and a schoolmaster in his hometown. Vajpayee did his schooling and higher education in Gwalior itself. He 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.
There is an interesting story about his student life, which people may rarely know. Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his father studied together in the college. Krishna Bihari Vajpayee joined the law course after his retirement from service. The son-father duo attending college together had left many amusing.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee had 3 brothers and 3 sisters. All of them got married. But when his turn came, he categorically rejected the idea saying that he has vowed to devote his life for the service of his motherland. His activism started with Arya Kumar Sabha. Later, he also joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1939. Even at that time, the wordsmith in him peeped out in the form of poems and speeches that were inspiring.
Vajpayee was inspired by the freedom struggle and actively took part in anti-British protests as a minor. He even spent twenty-four days in jail. The political master was taking shape during these early days.
The Bharatiya Jan Sangh days:
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 Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. In 1954, Vajpayee was with Mukherjee when he went on a fast-unto-death in Kashmir to protest against the perceived inferior treatment of non-Kashmiri Indian visitors to the state.
First Lok Sabha win:
In 1957, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was elected from Balrampur. Coming from a small party against the Congress in the heydays of Pandit Nehru, Vajpayee performed exceptionally well as a debutant parliamentarian. He soon became the face of Jana Sangh inside and outside the parliament with his oratory skills par excellence. This young parliamentarian raging with passion soon caught the attention of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Pandit Nehru was so enamored with his fluency in Hindi that he had even predicted that Vajpayee will be the prime minister of India in future. While introducing Vajpayee to a foreign dignitary, Nehru had said, “This young man one day will become the country’s prime minister.”
After the death of Deendayal Upadhyaya, the responsibility to lead Jana Sangh fell on the shoulders of Vajpayee. He became the national president of the Jana Sangh in 1968. This was also a time when the Jana Sangh saw the beginning of the rise of the party to national prominence.
The External Affairs Minister in Janata Party government:
During Janata Party government days, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was sworn in as the External Affairs Minister. He was also the first non-Congress external affairs minister to attend UNGA. It was a historical day as well. Vajpayee delivered a speech in Hindi at the UN General Assembly, raising India’s stand on key issues like nuclear disarmament, state-sponsored terrorism, and reforms at the world body. “I am a newcomer to the United Nations, but India is not, having been associated actively with the Organisation from its very inception,” he said.
“As one who has been a parliamentarian in my own country for two decades and more, I feel a special sense of exhilaration in attending this assembly of nations for the first time,” Vajpayee said in the historic address. It was the first time that an Indian leader had delivered the speech in Hindi at the UNGA as other Indian leaders had opted to speak in English, the dominant language at the forum.
Formation of Bharatiya Janata Party:
After the Janata Party banned dual membership of RSS and the party, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani along with some leaders broke away from the party and established Bharatiya Janata Party in April 1980. Presiding over the first session after the formation of the party, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had said that the post of the BJP president is not a piece of jewelry to boast about. “This post is not a prestige, it is a challenge,” he said.
At this session, Vajpayee ji resolved to fulfill the dreams of Mahatma Gandhi and Jay Prakash Narayan. While dismissing the politics of manipulation, Vajpayee ji had said that the BJP would do politics related to land, politics in political parties, politicians, to restore the lost faith of the people, which was a big thing in itself. It was at this meeting that he said, “Andhera Chhatega, Suraj Nikalega, Kamal Khilega.”
When PV Narasimha Rao trusted the opposition leader:
India faced a big challenge when Pakistan on 27 February 1994, moved to UN Human Rights Commission and tabled the resolution through OIC that condemned India for violation of human rights in Kashmir. If the resolution would have passed, India would have been put on UNSC economic sanctions. Faced with challenges on several fronts, PM Narasimha Rao took the matter into his own hands. The same month he flew from Davos (where he was attending World Economic Forum) to Germany.
He formed a team of delegates all carefully chosen to represent India. Despite being the leader of the opposition, the then PM PV Narasimha Rao trusted Atal Bihari Vajpayee and included him in the delegation to represent India at UN. The delegates also included Salman Khurshid, E. Ahmad, National Conference head Farooq Abdullah and Hamid Ansari. It was the time when keeping the political differences aside, Atal Bihari Vajpayee agreed to Rao’s decision. This also proves the “Nation first” policy of Vajpayee.
In Prime Minister’s chair:
Victory in the Gujarat and Maharashtra assembly elections in March 1995 and a good performance in the Karnataka assembly elections 1994 led BJP to a greater political prominence. During a BJP conference in Mumbai in November 1995, BJP President L. K. Advani declared that Vajpayee would become the PM candidate of the party. Subsequently, the BJP won the May 1996 parliamentary elections.
Though BJP was the single largest party, it could not gather the majority and Atal Bihari Vajpayee had to resign. The elections were again conducted in 1998. The BJP again won and this time with allied parties formed the government. However, it only lasted for 13 months until AIADMK withdrew its support. In 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. This time Atal Bihari Vajpayee completed a full term as a Prime Minister.
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. Vajpayee has been the strongest proponent of India as a nuclear power. In 1964 he had said in the parliament, “The answer to an atom bomb is an atom bomb, nothing else.” When he took office in 1996, he began taking steps in the direction of nuclear test. However, before the plan could materialize, his government fell within 13 days. When the BJP government came back to power in March 1998, with Vajpayee at its helm again, the party veteran and prime minister began laying the ground for the nuclear tests. On 8 April, he summoned Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) chief R Chidambaram and DRDO chief APJ Abdul Kalam to give them the thumbs-up for the tests.
The entire operation was conducted in such high secrecy that nobody except the aforementioned and home minister LK Advani knew about it. Defense Minister George Fernandes was told about the tests on 9 May. The next day, the three service chiefs and foreign secretary were informed.
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 between the two nations but also in South Asia and the rest of the world.
During Kargil War, Operation Vijay was launched in June 1999. 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.
Vajpayee sent a “secret letter” to US President Bill Clinton that if Pakistani infiltrators did not withdraw from the Indian territory, “we will get them out, one way or the other” – meaning he did not rule out crossing the Line of Control (LoC), or was the use of nuclear weapons.
Though the Vajpayee government was uprooted by the Congress-led UPA in 2004, Atal Bihari Vajpayee still remains one of the last politicians in India who command respect across the party lines.