New Delhi: Statesman and pragmatist, orator and poet, a man of peace and conviction. Atal Behari Vajpayee was a towering nationalist who softened the often sharp edge of his party’s politics with sophisticated inclusiveness, earning him the sobriquet “ajaat shatru” or the man with no enemies.
The first prime minister from a non-Congress party to complete a full term in office, Vajpayee began shakily his first stint as prime minister in 1996 lasted only 13 days when his unlikely coalition government failed to get support from other parties. The BJP-led coalition government came back to power in 1998, and this time Vajpayee stayed in office for 13 months before losing a no-confidence motion by one vote.
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) returned to power in October 1999 with Vajpayee as prime minister once again. This time he lasted the entire term, capping a glorious career that saw him go from student activist to journalist, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh pracharak, Member of Parliament, foreign minister, opposition leader and finally a much-loved leader of the nation.
Like many of his generation, Vajpayee who died on Thursday at age 93 came into politics as an 18-year old during the Independence movement in 1942 when the Quit India movement was going on.
A lifelong bachelor, Vajpayee was first elected to the Lok Sabha in 1957 from Balrampur in Uttar Pradesh in India’s second general elections. His maiden speech in Parliament so impressed his peers and colleagues that the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru introduced Vajpayee to a visiting foreign dignitary thus: “This young man one day will become the country’s prime minister.”
Time Line 1924: Born in Gwalior, India 1942: Arrested during the Quit India Movement 1951: Joins Bharatiya Jana Sangh 1957: Elected as LS member (1st term) 1968: Becomes BJS national chief 1975: Jailed during the Emergency 1977: Becomes foreign minister in the Janata Party govt 1980: Restarts BJS as BJP; becomes its first president 1998: Second term as PM begins. Govt lasts 13 months, Pokhran nuclear tests conducted 1999: Launches the Delhi-Lahore Bus service, Launches Operation Vijay to clear Kargil, Third term as PM begins 2001: Launches Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan 2004: BJP loses parliamentary elections 2005: Retires from politics 2009: Suffers a stroke 2014: 90th birthday observed as Good Governance Day. 2015: Awarded the Bharat Ratna
He remained a member of Parliament for 47 years elected 10 times to the Lok Sabha and twice to the Rajya Sabha.
The only time he lost a Lok Sabha election was against Madhavrao Scindia of Congress from Gwalior in 1984, when he lost by a margin of close to 2 lakh votes. Vajpayee represented Lucknow in the 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th Lok Sabha from 1991 to 2009. He represented Balrampur in the second and fourth Lok Sabha, Gwalior in the fifth and New Delhi in the sixth and the seventh LS. In 1962 and 1986, he was elected to the Rajya Sabha.
Vajpayee’s signature in politics was achieving pragmatic consensus, and in this process he earned the respect of his party, allies and opponents. Abroad, he projected a harmonious image of India and connected it to the world through his foreign policy outreach.
Fluent in English, his oratory was at its best in Hindi. With his well-timed wit, and carefully-chosen words delivered with trademark long pauses, Vajpayee immediately connected with all those who came in contact with him the common man, politicians, bureaucrats, students and world leaders.
As foreign minister under the Janata Party government headed by Morarji Desai in 1977, Vajpayee was the first leader to deliver a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in Hindi. He was awarded India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, in March 2015.
While his six years in office were defined by several crises including the hijacking of an Indian Airlines jetliner to Kandahar, Afghanistan in 1999, an attack on the Parliament building in 2001, communal riots in Gujarat in 2002 he also left a mark with peace initiatives and infrastructural projects. Chief among them is the Golden Quadrilateral Highway network, connecting India’s four major metropolises with 5,846 km of roads.
During his second term as prime minister, Vajpayee ordered nuclear tests in May 1998 in a strategic masterstroke to blunt Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions while at the same time announcing a moratorium on future testing. He followed this up with peace overtures to Pakistan, riding on the first direct bus from India to Pakistan in February 1999.
Undeterred by party hawks, Vajpayee arrived in Lahore on the bus, accompanied among others by legendary actor Dev Anand. Vajpayee met with then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in what was hailed as the dawn of a new era in India-Pakistan relations.
However, then Army Chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf did not turn up to greet him at the Wagah border. It soon became clear why.
Only months later, in June 1999, Pakistan began hostilities in Kargil that took the two countries to the brink of a full-scale war. Vajpayee felt betrayed and never hid his bitterness whenever Kargil was mentioned. He tried again to build peace with Pakistan which people close to him say was the mission of his life by holding a historic summit in Agra with Musharraf in 2001, who by then had become the president. But the summit too failed spectacularly.
Another historic event that he expressed anguish about was the post-Godhra communal riots in Gujarat in 2002 when Prime minister Narendra Modi was the chief minister.
Unwilling to hide his feelings over the riots, Vajpayee said the government must follow “raj dharma”. In his autobiography, former President Pranab Mukherjee wrote that the Gujarat riots were “possibly the biggest blot” on Vajpayee’s government that could have cost the BJP the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. After the NDA was routed in the election.