New Delhi: Atal Bihari Vajpayee was one of the most admired politicians with a mass appeal. There was no secret behind this popularity. It was just that he was simple, straightforward and honest.
If his inimitable oratory, repartee and ready wit tug at the hearts of the masses, his patience and width of vision influenced the minds of many a head of the state. Whether it was international affairs or matters of national interest, Vajpayee spoke with authority. And he spoke without mincing words where criticism was due. In recognition to his services to the country, he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1992 and the Best Parliamentarian Award in 1994.
A bachelor, Vajpayee had during the partition in 1947, taken a vow not to get married. And he said time and again that he never regretted his decision. Sensitive at heart, he was never attracted to the materialistic. The ambition was that people should speak well of him.
A skilled parliamentarian and statesman, he was born on December 25, 1925. Son of a poet and writer Krishna Bihari Vajpayee, his grandfather Shyam Lal Vajpayee was a Sanskrit scholar and poet. Vajpayee grew up in Gwalior and later moved to Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, to do his Masters in political science from Kanpur University.
Interestingly, both Vajpayee and his father enrolled themselves together for law when the former decided to do law and the latter had retired from service. Young Vajpayee felt slightly uncomfortable and requested the professor to transfer him to another section. The reason he gave was that he had to travel some distance to fetch milk and could not come in time. But the father-son duo stayed in the same hostel room for two years. In his nonchalant style Vajpayee had laughed and said, “People used to come from other villages to see us.”
He became a member of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and when the organisation decided to launch a monthly journal, he was asked to edit it. Simultaneously, he edited Panchjanya, the RSS mouthpiece and the daily Swadesh. As the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi witnessed a ban on RSS, Vajpayee went to Kashi and started editing a journal named Chetna. In 1953, he was posted to Delhi as the editor of a daily newspaper Veer Arjun.
As a journalist, he accompanied Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, founder of the RSS, to Kashmir, where Mukherjee offered satyagraha and was arrested and imprisoned. Vajpayee was told to go back to Delhi. He quit journalism and plunged headlong into politics.
He was a member of the Parliament for over four decades. He was elected to the Lok Sabha 10 times and to the Rajya Sabha twice. He served as MP until 2009, when he retired from active politics due to health concerns. Vajpayee was first elected to Parliament in 1957 from Balrampur in Uttar Pradesh.
On the first day of the Parliament, although happy and apprehensive, he was given a back seat and denied the opportunity to speak due to the party’s strength in the House. Not one to let things pass, he made a suggestion by writing to the Speaker and the leader of the House, Jawaharlal Nehru. His request to pay homage to the martyrs of 1857 before the start of the proceedings was promptly accepted. Steadily, he made his way and excelled in foreign affairs. His first stint as Prime Minister in 1996 lasted for 13 days. Subsequent elections saw him as Prime Minister again. This time the term lasted 13 months. The results of the 13th Lok Sabha elections in 1999, finally made him take oath of office for the third time.
Vajpayee was fond of poetry. He first wrote poetry when he was in Grade 9. He had few books in Hindi to his credit, including Amar Aag Hai and Meri Ekavan Kavitayein.
Seeing technological revolutions and youngsters hands on with the latest technology, in early 2000s, Vajpayee had remarked, “I should have been younger at this stage. These are challenging times.” He believed in changing with the times and felt modernisation was always for good. But a detached person as far as luxuries were concerned, he is known to have left the office immediately after his 13-month government fell. When an aide remarked, “What is the protocol?”, Vajpayee retorted, “What protocol? Let’s pack the bags and leave.”
In 1951, he worked with the newly formed Bharatiya Jana Sangh, a party, associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). By virtue of his oratorial and organisational skills, he became the face of Jana Sangh and worked closely with former home minister Lal Krishna Advani. Along with several other opposition leaders, he was arrested during the Emergency (1975-77) imposed by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
He served as External Affairs minister in the Morarji Desai Janata Party government and was the first person to deliver a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in Hindi. When the government collapsed, Vajpayee restructured the Jana Sangh into the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1980. He was BJP’s first president.
Vajpayee shot to prominence the world over in 1998, when India conducted five underground nuclear tests in Pokhran desert in Rajasthan — 24 years after India conducted its first nuclear test.
He began a full-scale diplomatic peace process with Pakistan in 1998-99. But then the Kargil War happened. India’s victory bolstered Vajpayee’s image and he was hailed across the country for his strong leadership.
His government witnessed a crisis in 1999, when an Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu, Nepal, to New Delhi, was hijacked by five terrorists and flown to Afghanistan. The hijackers demand to release certain terrorists in exchange for the passengers, was met.
The ice between India and Pakistan was finally broken on February 20, 1999, when Vajpayee crossed the Wagah border check post on the Delhi-Lahore bus and entered Pakistan — creating history. As he and the Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif shook hands, both physical and mental barriers were broken. The gates of friendship opened, demolishing the walls of hatred.
During his administration, Vajpayee introduced several economic and infrastructural reforms, including encouraging private sector and foreign investments.
In 2000, when Bill Clinton, then President of the US, paid a state visit to India, it was hailed as a significant milestone, as it was the first state visit to India by a US President in 22 years.
In 2001, Vajpayee again tried to break the ice in India-Pakistan relations by inviting then Prime Minister Pervez Musharraf to Delhi and Agra for a joint summit and peace talks. However, the summit failed.
In the 2004 general elections, the Vjapayee led-National Democratic Alliance was expected to retain power. The BJP hoped to capitalise on the slogan ‘India Shining’ and released numerous ads touting the economic growth of the nation. However, the coalition lost almost half of its seats and several prominent leaders were defeated. Vajpayee resigned as Prime Minister and accepting moral responsibility (for the defeat), decided not to take up the position of the Leader of the Opposition and passed on the leadership mantle to Advani.
As part of delegations, and on diplomatic assignments, Vajpayee had travelled (from 1965-1993) to several countries including East Africa, Canada, Japan, Switzerland, Geneva and the Gulf countries including Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait.
Vajpayee was referred to as the Bhishma Pitamah of Indian politics, by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during a speech in Rajya Sabha. (Bhishma Pitamah was a mythological figure, held in respect by two warring sides, in the Hindu epic Mahabharata).
Vajpayee, underwent knee replacement surgery at the Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai in 2001. He suffered a stroke in 2009, which impaired his speech and he was hospitalised at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi. As chest infection and other complications arose and his condition worsened, he was put on ventilator support. But he eventually recuperated and was later discharged. This year, in June, he was again admitted to AIIMS in a critical condition. At the age of 93, Vajpayee was the oldest living former Indian Prime Minister.