Atal Bihari Vajpayee has the distinction of being the Prime Minister of India for three terms. The last one was from 1999 to 2004 – a full five-year term. His first term in 1996 was for only 13 days and his second term was for 13 months. He was a Parliamentarian for more than four decades, elected ten times to the Lok Sabha, and twice to the Rajya Sabha. He was an MP from Lucknow, till 2009 when he retired from active politics.
He was one of the founding members of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) and president of the party from 1968 to 1972. Later BJS merged with other parties to form the Janata Party, which won the 1977 general election. He was the Minister of External Affairs.
The Janata alliance collapsed in 1979. In 1980, BJP was formed and Vajpayee became its first president. He was conferred India’s highest civilian honor, the Bharat Ratna in 2015 and his birthday, 25 December, is marked as Good Governance Day.
Here is a brief look at his life and career.
Full Name: Atal Bihari Vajpayee
Born On: 25 December 1924
Died On: 16 August 2018 (aged 93), New Delhi, India
Birthplace: Gwalior State, British India (now in Madhya Pradesh, India)
Position Held: 10th Prime Minister of India and PM of India thrice.
Alma Mater: Saraswati Shishu Mandir in Gwalior; AVM School Barnagar in Ujjain
Education: Victoria College (now Maharani Laxmi Bai Govt. College of Excellence), Gwalior; DAV College, Kanpur (1947)
Parents: Father – Krishna Bihari Vajpayee; Mother – Krishna Devi
Profession: Writer, Politician, Poet
Political Party: Bharatiya Janata Party (1980–2018)
Other Political Affiliations: Janata Party (1977–1980), Bharatiya Jana Sangh (before 1977)
Childhood, Early Life and Education
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was born on 25 December 1924 in Gwalior which was an Indian state during the British Raj. Krishna Bihari Vajpayee, his father, was a school teacher and his mother Krishna Devi, a housewife. His ancestors belonged to a village Bateshwar in Uttar Pradesh, from where his grandfather had migrated to Morena in Gwalior.
Vajpayee schooled at Saraswati Shishu Mandir in Gwalior. Later, when he was ten years old, he took admission in Anglo Vernacular Middle School, Barnagar in Ujjain where his father became the headmaster.
Later he did his Bachelor of Arts in Hindi, English, and Sanskrit from Victoria College (now Maharani Laxmi Bai Govt. College of Excellence), Gwalior. Later he did his Post-Graduation – M.A. in Political Science – from DAV College, Kanpur in 1947.
Early Political Activism
In 1939, when he was 15 years old, Vajpayee had joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and later during 1960-44, he attended the Officers Training Camp of the RSS. Five years later, in 1944, at the age of 20, Vajpayee became the General Secretary of the youth wing of Arya Samaj – Arya Kumar Sabha at Gwalior.
In 1947, he became a Pracharak in RSS. He was sent to Uttar Pradesh as a Vistarak of RSS, where he began working for the newspapers of Deendayal Upadhyay, which were the monthly Rashtradharma, weekly Panchjanya, and the dailies Veer Arjun and Swadesh.
The Beginning of His Political Career (1942-1975)
In August 1942, when Vajpayee was 16 years old, he along with his elder brother Prem were arrested during the Quit India Movement. He was released after 23 days when he gave a written undertaking that although he was a part of the crowd, he did not participate in the events in Bateshwar on 27 August 1942.
In 1951, Vajpayee was asked by RSS to work for the newly formed Hindu right-wing political party, Bharatiya Jana Sangh. He was made the National Secretary 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 accompanied Shyama Prasad Mukherjee on his hunger strike in Kashmir. During this event, Mukherjee died in prison.
In 1957, Vajpayee became a member of Parliament for the first time, when in the general election, he contested for the Lok Sabha. While he was defeated in Mathura, he was elected from Balrampur seat. In the Parliament, his oratory skills impressed everyone and the then PM Jawaharlal Nehru predicted that one day Vajpayee would become the Prime Minister of India.
In 1962, he was elected to a six-year term in the Rajya Sabha – the upper house of the Parliament. In 1968, after the death of Deendayal Upadhyaya, Vajpayee became the national president of the Jana Sangh. His colleagues were Nanaji Deshmukh, Balraj Madhok, and L. K. Advani.
Role in the Janata Party and Bharatiya Janata Party (1975–1995)
During the period of Internal Emergency in 1975, Vajpayee was arrested along with several other opposition leaders. He was put in a prison in Bangalore but was later moved to a Delhi hospital on account of bad health.
In 1977, the PM Indira Gandhi lifted the state of Emergency. The Janata Party was formed by a coalition of parties and won the General Election in 1977. Morarji Desai became the PM of India, and Vajpayee was made the Minister of External Affairs or foreign minister. That year Vajpayee attended the United Nations General Assembly and became the first person to deliver a speech in Hindi.
In 1978, Desai resigned as the Prime Minister, and the Janata Party collapsed. In 1980, the erstwhile members of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh came together and created the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Vajpayee became the first President of the party. During the 1977 and 1980 General Elections, Vajpayee had won from the New Delhi seat.
In 1984, the General Elections were held after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. In the ensuing election, Vajpayee contested from Gwalior – his home town; however, he was defeated by the Congress (I) candidate Madhavrao Scindia, who was the scion of the Gwalior royal family. In this General Election, BJP could win only 2 Parliamentary seats.
Vajpayee continued as the BJP party president and in 1986 he was elected to the Rajya Sabha from Madhya Pradesh. In 1986 L. K. Advani became the President of the BJP, and pursued a policy of Hindu nationalism including the construction of a temple at Ram Janmabhoomi in Ayodhya, dedicated to the Hindu deity Lord Rama.
In the 1989 elections, the BJP won 86 seats in the Lok Sabha and supported V.P. Singh as the PM. In December 1992, a group of people led by members of the BJP, the RSS and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), tore down the 16th-century mosque, the Babri Masjid.
Vajpayee’s First Term as Prime Minister (May 1996)
In the 1996 General elections, BJP became the single largest party in the parliament. This was attributed to the religious polarization across the country. The President Shankar Dayal Sharma invited Vajpayee to form the government and he became the 10th Prime Minister of India. However, BJP failed to garner the majority required and he resigned after 16 days.
Vajpayee’s Second Term as Prime Minister (1998-99)
During the period from 1996 to 1998, there were two United Front Governments which fell subsequently. The Parliament was dissolved and fresh elections were held in 1998. In this general election, BJP was ahead of other parties and several political parties joined to form the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Vajpayee became the Prime Minister.
During this period, in May 1998, India conducted five underground nuclear tests in the Pokhran, Rajasthan. This was 24 years after its first nuclear test in 1974. In February 1999, Vajpayee initiated a peace process with Pakistan which resulted in the Lahore Declaration.
On 17 April 1999, after 13 months, the ruling party lost the vote of confidence motion by a single vote after the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) led by Jayalalithaa withdrew support. The Parliament was again dissolved and fresh elections were held in October 1999.
Vajpayee’s Third Term as Prime Minister (1999-2004)
On 13 October 1999, Vajpayee became the Prime Minister of India for the third time, after the BJP-led NDA won 303 seats in the parliament in the 1999 General Elections.
Some of the important events that took place during this period are given here.
Indian Airlines Flight IC 814 Hijacked
In December 1999, an Indian Airlines flight IC 814 from Kathmandu to New Delhi was hijacked by five terrorists and taken to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The terrorists demanded the release of terrorists like Masood Azhar from prison. The government gave in to the demands and the External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, accompanied the terrorists to Afghanistan. The terrorists were released in exchange for the passengers.
Kargil War 1999
On 26 May 1999, the Indian army launched the Operation Vijay, against the Pakistani militants who had entered the Kashmir Valley and taken control of border hilltops and posts around the town of Kargil, Batalik and Akhnoor sectors. Artillery exchanges also took place in the Siachen Glacier.
Indian soldiers fought bravely in the midst of heavy artillery in the snowy and treacherous terrain of the high altitude. In the three-month-long Kargil War, more than 500 Indian soldiers died and 800 to 4,000 Pakistani militants and soldiers died. Nearly 70% of the Indian territory was recaptured.
Visit of Dignitaries
In March 2000, Bill Clinton, the President of the United States, visited India. This was the first state visit by a U.S. President in 22 years, after President Jimmy Carter’s visit in 1978.
In 2001, Vajpayee visited Japan.
Journalist’s Sting Operation 2001
In March 2001, the Tehelka group of newspaper conducted a sting video operation called Operation West End. It showed BJP president Bangaru Laxman, senior army officers and NDA members accepting bribes. The Defence Minister George Fernandes had to resign due to several scandals related to defense purchase.
The Agra Summit
Vajpayee held a summit at Agra with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. However, the summit did not end up as successful as was anticipated.
2001 Attack on Parliament
On 13 December 2001, terrorists attacked the Parliament House in Delhi and killed several security guards, but the security forces cornered and killed the terrorists who were later found to be Pakistan nationals.
Around 500,000 to 750,000 Indian soldiers were positioned along the international border with Pakistan. In May 2002, a terrorist attack on an army garrison in Kashmir turned things worse. However, In October 2002, both India and Pakistan decided to withdraw their troops from the borders and de-escalate the situation.
In 2002, the Vajpayee administration brought the Prevention of Terrorism Act which gave additional powers to government authorities to investigate and act against suspects of terrorism.
The Babri Masjid Dispute
Between December 2001 and March 2002, a crisis was averted when the VHP decided to hold a foundation laying ceremony for a Ram temple on the disputed Babri Masjid site. Later there was just a symbolic handover of a stone at a location 1 km away from the disputed site.
2002 Gujarat Violence
In February 2002, a train filled with Hindu pilgrims returning to Gujarat from Ayodhya stopped at Godhra in Gujarat. The train was set on fire causing the deaths of 59 people. The charred remains were displayed in the city of Ahmedabad, and the VHP called for a statewide strike in Gujarat, inflaming anti-Muslim sentiments.
In the ensuing riot, the rampaging Hindu mobs killed thousands of Muslim men and women, destroyed Muslim homes and places of worship. The violence continued for more than two months, and more than 1,000 people died. Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat at the time, was criticized for mishandling and doing little to stop the carnage, and even for encouraging the riot.
Vajpayee traveled to Gujarat and visited the most affected areas like Godhra and Ahmedabad. Announcing financial aid to victims, he urged to end the violence. Although he initially wished, but did not remove Modi and said that Modi must follow Raj Dharma, Hindi for ethical governance.
In 2002, at the BJP national executive meeting in Goa, Vajpayee’s speech that “Wherever Muslims live, they don’t like to live in co-existence with others.” faced a lot of criticism. Vajpayee was accused of doing nothing to stop the violence, and later he admitted mistakes in handling the events.
K. R. Narayanan, the President of India at the time, also blamed Vajpayee’s government for failing to quell the violence. When BJP was defeated in the 2004 general elections, Vajpayee admitted that not removing Modi was a mistake.
Events and Policies During 2002–2004
During 2002-03, the government brought economic reforms, and the country’s GDP growth exceeded 7% every year from 2003 to 2007. Emphasis was on creation and modernization of infrastructure, the creation of jobs, high-tech and IT industry, besides many more initiatives.
Despite several hurdles, Vajpayee continued his aggressive economic reform policy. Some of the projects were the National Highways Development Project, Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan campaign to improve school-level education.
In May 2003, Vajpayee announced in the parliament that he would make efforts to achieve peace with Pakistan. The Pakistani President, politicians, civil and religious leaders hailed this initiative.
In July 2003, Vajpayee visited China and gave recognition to Tibet as a part of China. China also recognized Sikkim as part of India, and the China–India relations improved.
The 2004 General Election
The 13th Lok Sabha was dissolved six months earlier than its full term as BJP wanted to take advantage of the ‘feel-good factor’ and the “India Shining” campaign, as well as its successes in the Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh.
In 2004 General Elections, BJP won only 138 seats out of 543 and the NDA coalition won only 185. By winning 145 seats, the Indian National Congress emerged as the single largest party. It formed the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) with 220 seats. With other parties supporting from outside, Manmohan Singh became the Prime Minister.
In December 2005, at the BJP’s silver jubilee rally at Mumbai’s Shivaji Park, Vajpayee announced his retirement from active politics. On 6 February 2009, Vajpayee was hospitalized at All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi (AIIMS) and later discharged.
He could not campaign in the 2009 General Elections. BJP and NDA suffered defeat in the election.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee remained a bachelor all his life. He adopted Namita Bhattacharya, daughter of his friend Rajkumari Kaul and BN Kaul. Vajpayee was known to be fond of whiskey and meat, unlike typical Brahmins.
He was also a noted poet who wrote in Hindi. He had many published works, most renowned among them were Kaidi Kavirai ki Kundalian, an anthology of his poems written during his imprisonment in the 1975–77 Emergency, and Amar Aag Hai.
Vajpayee’s Last Days
In 2009, Vajpayee suffered a stroke which impaired his speech. He was confined to a wheelchair and suffered dementia and diabetes. He failed to recognize people. He stopped attending public engagements restricted himself within his residence except for medical checkups.
On 11 June 2018, Vajpayee was admitted to AIIMS due to a kidney infection. Later, his condition became critical. On 16 August 2018, at 5:05 pm, he was officially declared dead. He was 93.
Next day his body was draped with the Indian flag and taken to the Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters for allowing people to pay their tributes. In the evening he was cremated with full state honors at Rashtriya Smriti Sthal near Raj Ghat.
His pyre was lit by his foster daughter Namita Kaul Bhattacharya. Many dignitaries including PM Narendra Modi and President Ram Nath Kovind; and thousands of people attended the funeral procession. His ashes were immersed in Ganga river at Haridwar on 19th August.
Tributes poured in from Indians and on social media. The Government announced seven-day state mourning all over India, with the national flag flying at half-mast. His funeral ceremony was attended by Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Bhutan king Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck.
The government of Mauritius announced that the Mauritian flag would fly at half mast in honor of Vajpayee. Condolence messages came from the heads of government in Russia, USA, France, Japan, China, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and several other countries.
Honors and Awards
Vajpayee was honored with several awards and accolades during his lifetime. He was not just considered the Best parliamentarian’ by Nehru; but also called “Bhishma Pitamah” by the then PM Manmohan Singh. Some of the top awards that he received are listed below.
- Padma Vibhushan (1992)
- D. Litt. from Kanpur University (1993)
- Lokmanya Tilak Award (1994)
- Bharat Ratna – the highest civilian award of India (2015)
- Bangladesh Liberation War honor from Bangladesh (2015)
Vajpayee had authored several works in prose and poetry, which included his articles and speeches.
Most prominent among his works of Prose:
- National Integration (1961)
- New Dimensions of India’s Foreign Policy (1979)
- Gathbandhan Ki Rajneeti
- Kucha Lekha, Kucha Bhashana (1996)
- Bindu-Bindu Vicara (1997)
- Decisive Days (1999)
- Sankalp-Kaal (1999)
- Vicara-Bindu (2000)
- India’s Perspectives on ASEAN and the Asia-Pacific Region (2003)
- Dainyam Na Palayanam
- Nayi Chunouti: Naya Avasar
Prominent works of his Poetry:
- Kaidi Kaviraj Ki Kundalian
- Amar Aag Hai (1994)
- Meri Ikyavana Kavitaem (1995)
- Kya Khoya Kya Paya: Atal Bihari Vajapeyi, Vyaktitva Aur Kavitaem (1999)
- Values, Vision & Verses of Vajpayee: India’s Man of Destiny (2001)
- Twenty-One Poems (2003)
- Chuni Hui Kavitayein (2012)
Some Inspirational Quotes from Atal Bihari Vajpayee
“If India is not secular, then India is not India at all.”
“I have a vision of India: an India free of hunger and fear, an India free of illiteracy.”
“I believe that democracy is the best guarantor for peace and cooperation among nations.”
“You can change friends but not neighbours.”
“This power of democracy is a matter of pride for our country, something which we must always cherish, preserve and further strengthen.”
“Poverty is multidimensional. It extends beyond money incomes to education, health care, political participation and advancement of one’s own culture and social organization.”
“We are unnecessarily wasting our precious resources in wars. If we must wage war, we have to do it on unemployment, disease, poverty, and backwardness.”
“Ours is a multi-religious country, a multi-lingual country; we have many different modes of worship. We believe in peaceful and harmonious co-existence.”
“I believe the gun is no solution to problems.”
“I have a vision of India: an India free of hunger and fear, an India free of illiteracy and want. I dream of an India that is prosperous, strong and caring. An India that regains a place of honor in the comity of great nations.”
“Freedom is incomplete without social justice.”
“The success of family welfare depends on giving women complete freedom with their lives. The need of the hour is that people should plan their families as per their convenience and get the bare minimum health facilities.”
Written By: Raj Kumar Hansdah