Atal Bihari Vajpayee passes away: BJP loses its tallest leader, India a statesman politician

Former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the longest living PM, breathed his last on Thursday evening at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi. Here is a look at his journey.

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Vajpayee's first involvement in politics was as a freedom fighter between 1942 to 1945 when he started out as a communist but shed the membership to join Rashtriya Swamyamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the longest living PM, breathed his last on Thursday evening at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi. The Bharatiya Janata Party leader who was known for his inspiring speeches was admitted to AIIMS on June 11 with a kidney tract infection, urinary tract infection, low urine output and chest congestion. Vajpayee, a diabetic, had only one functional kidney and had also suffered a stroke in 2009 that weakened his cognitive abilities.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the AIIMS last evening to enquire about Vajpayee’s condition. His visit was followed by several leaders and ministers including Suresh Prabhu, Jitendra Singh, Harsh Vardhan and Shahnawaz Hussain.

Born on December 25, 1924 in Gwalior, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was jailed briefly for opposing British colonial rule. He flirted with communism for a while before joining the Rashtriya Swamyamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Jan Sangh.

Entry into politics

Vajpayee’s first involvement in politics was as a freedom fighter between 1942 to 1945 when he started out as a communist but shed the membership to join Rashtriya Swamyamsevak Sangh (RSS). He dropped out of law college in the early 1950s to run an RSS magazine in the early 1950s and also became a close follower and aide to Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), BJP’s predecessor.

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He was by Moookerjee’s side when the latter went on a fast-to-death in Kashmir in 1953 to protest against the system of carrying a permit for entering the state and the “inferior” treatment of Indian citizens visiting Kashmir, as also the special treatment accorded to Kashmir because it had a Muslim majority.

In 1957, he was elected to parliament as a member of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS). The BJS joined three other parties from the Janata Party in 1977 and formed a government which lasted till July 1979. Atal Bihari Vajpayee served as the foreign minister in the Janata government and earned a reputation for improving relations with Pakistan and China.

A year later, following a split in the Janata Party, Vajpayee helped the BJS to reorganize itself as the BJP. Known as a powerful leader who didn’t hold himself back, he was one of the few Hindu leaders to speak out against the destruction of the historic mosque at Ayodhya by anti-Muslim extremists.

The Rise

Vajpayee’s first stint as prime minister started in May 1996 but lasted only for 13 days after he failed to attract support from other parties. The saffron leader made a powerful comeback two years later when BJP won a record number of seats in 1998 Lok Sabha elections. However, he was forced to make a shaky alliance with regional parties. This stint lasted for 13 months after AIADMK supremo Jayalalithaa withdrew support in 1999. In probably one of the most heartbreaking moments in Indian politics, Vajpayee lost the vote of confidence motion in the Lok Sabha by a single vote on 17 April 1999.

Here is his speech from the Parliament –

The same year BJP increased its seats in parliament and consolidated its hold on government. He then became the first non-Congress prime minister to complete a full term of five years. The term was full of achievements on both economic as well as the policy-making front.

The Pokhran Tests

It was under Atal Bihari Vajpayee that India conducted five underground nuclear tests in Pokhran desert in Rajasthan in May 1998. The test called Pokhran – II came 24 years after India had conducted its first nuclear test (Smiling Buddha) in 1974. The tests which were conducted just a month after the new government came to power led to sanctions on information, resources and technology to India by United States, Canada, Japan, Britain and the European Union.

However, it earned India the status of a nuclear nation and forced Pakistan to conduct its own tests just two weeks later. The sanctions failed to sway India’s decision to weaponize their nuclear capability as the US lifted them just six months after the tests – something that was planned for and anticipated by the Vajpayee administration.

Kargil War

Vajpayee also led India to a victory in the Kargil war after it was revealed that militants and non-uniformed Pakistani soldiers had infiltrated into the Kashmir Valley and captured control of border hilltops, unmanned border posts and were spreading out fast. Operation Vijay was launched in June 1999 and Indian army units were swiftly rushed into Kashmir in response.

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Vajpayee had 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’. The former Indian prime minister had made it clear that the country won’t hesitate from crossing the Line of Control (LoC), or using the nuclear weapons.

After a three-month war where over 500 Indian soldiers were killed, 70% of the territory was recaptured by India. It is estimated that about 4,000 Pakistani militants and soldiers died as well. General Musharraf was recalcitrant and Nawaz Sharif asked the remaining militants to stop and withdraw to positions along the LoC.

The victory established Vajpayee’s image as a strong leader and on 26 July 2012, designated as ‘Kargil Vijay Diwas’, BJP President Nitin Gadkari unveiled a wax statue of Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Mumbai.

Parliament Attack and Gujarat Riots

One of the low points in Vajpayee’s time at PM office came when a group of masked, armed men stormed the Parliament House in Delhi on 13 December 2001. They 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. The attack took place just three months after the September 11 attacks upon the United States.

After the attack, Vajpayee administration passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act against vigorous opposition of non-NDA parties. The step was condemned by the human rights groups as it gives wide authority to the government to crack down and hold anybody.

It was around the same time when the government was held hostage by the VHP in a major standoff in Ayodhya over the Ram temple. Thousands of VHP activists amassed and threatened to overrun the site and forcibly build the temple to mark the 10th anniversary of the destruction of the Babri mosque. The Vajpayee government was eventually able to tide over the crisis.

One of the biggest controversies of Vajpayee’s time as the prime minister was over his remarks after the 2002 Hindu-Muslim violence in Gujarat which led to over 1,000 deaths. “Wherever there are Muslims in large numbers, they do not want to live in peace,” Vajpayee had said but later a clarification from PMO said the statement was being taken out of context.

Vajpayee after Gujarat riots –

Vajpayee was also accused of doing nothing to stop the violence, and later admitted to mistakes in handling the events.

Economic Reforms

Many of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s achievements came on the economic front as he carried on the spirit of economic reforms introduced by the PV Narasimha Rao government in 1991. He launched the ambitious roads projects – the Golden Quadrilateral and the Pradhanmantri Gramin Sadak Yojna.

He also reduced the government role in running businesses by setting up a separate disinvestment ministry. The most important disinvestments were Bharat Aluminium Company (BALCO) and Hindustan Zinc, Indian Petrochemicals Corporation Limited and VSNL.

His government also introduced the Fiscal Responsibility Act that aimed to bring down fiscal deficit. It boosted the public-sector savings which rose from -0.8% of GDP in FY 2000, to 2.3% in FY 2005.

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