The Life & Times of India’s ‘Poet’ Prime Minister

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Atal Bihari Vajpayee was an Indian politician, statesman and poet who served three terms as India’s prime minister, first for a 13-day term in 1996, then a 13-month period from 1998 to 1999, and lastly a complete term from 1999 to 2004. He was a member of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and the first prime minister who was not a member of the Indian National Congress to have served the full term in office.

He was a veteran parliamentarian whose career extends over 4 decades, he was elected nine times to the Lok Sabha and twice to the Rajya Sabha, which alone is a record. He has been conferred with India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna in 2015 by then President of India, Pranab Mukherjee.

Early Life

He was born on 25 December 1924 in Gwalior to Krishna Devi and Krishna Bihari Vajpayee in a Brahmin family. His grandfather, Pandit Shyam Lal Vajpayee, had moved from his ancestral Bateshwar village, Uttar Pradesh, to Morena, Gwalior.  Vajpayee’s father was a school teacher in his hometown.

He did his schooling at the Saraswati Shishu Mandir in Gwalior and subsequently attended Victoria College in Gwalior for B.A in Hindi, Sanskrit & English.  His activism began with Arya Kumar Sabha of Gwalior, Arya Samaj’s youth wing, of which he became secretary general in 1944. He joined  Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as a swayamsevak (volunteer) in 1939 and became a pracharak (full time worker) in 1947.

Political Career

In 1951, Vajpayee was seconded by the RSS to work for the newly established Bharatiya Jana Sangh, a right-wing Hindu political party connected with the RSS, along with Deendayal Upadhyaya. He was named as the party’s national secretary in charge of the Delhi-based Northern Region.

He contested elections to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Indian Parliament in the 1957 elections but lost to Raja Mahendra Pratap in Mathura but was eventually elected from Balrampur. His oratory skills impressed Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru so much so that he predicted that someday Vajpayee would become the Prime Minister of India.

A coalition of parties, including the BJS, came together to create the Janata Party that won the general elections that followed. Morarji Desai, the alliance’s selected leader, became the prime minister. Vajpayee served in Desai’s cabinet as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, or foreign minister. Vajpayee became the first person to deliver a speech to the UN General Assembly in Hindi in 1977 as foreign minister.

In 1979, Vajpayee resigned from office. Shortly after Desai resigned as Prime Minister in 1979, the Janata Party collapsed. Bharatiya Jana Sangh’s former leaders came together in 1980 to form the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with Vajpayee as its first president.

Terms as Prime Minister (1996-2004)

1st Term – May 1996

BJP President Advani stated during a BJP meeting in Mumbai in November 1995 that Vajpayee would be the prime ministerial candidate of the party in the upcoming elections. In the 1996 general election, the BJP became the largest single party in parliament, Indian president Shankar Dayal Sharma invited Vajpayee to form the government. Vajpayee was sworn in as India’s 10th Prime Minister, but the BJP did not win a majority among the Lok Sabha members. After 16 days, Vajpayee resigned when it became apparent that he had insufficient assistance to form a government

2nd Term – 1998-1999

The Lok Sabha was disbanded after the fall of the two governments of the United Front between 1996 and 1998 and fresh elections were held. The general elections of 1998 again placed the BJP ahead of others. A number of political parties entered the BJP to create the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and as prime minister, Vajpayee was sworn in.  The government of Vajpayee lasted 13 months until mid-1999 when All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) withdrew its support under Jayalalithaa. By a single ballot on April 17, 1999, the government lost the subsequent vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha and the Lok Sabha was again dissolve and fresh elections were held.

Historical Feats

India performed five underground nuclear tests, 24 years after its first atomic test (Smiling Buddha) in 1974, in the Pokhran desert in Rajasthan in May 1998. Vajpayee started a push for a full-scale diplomatic peace process with Pakistan in late 1998 and early 1999. Vajpayee initiated a new peace process with the historic opening of the Delhi-Lahore bus service in February 1999 to address the Kashmir dispute and other conflicts with Pakistan on a continuous basis.

3rd Term – 1999-2004

The BJP-led NDA won 303 seats in the Lok Sabha in the aftermath of the Kargil operations in the 1999 general elections, securing a comfortable and stable majority. On 13 October 1999, for the third time, Vajpayee took oath as India’s prime minister.

His government introduced many national economic and infrastructural reforms, including promoting private sector and foreign investment, decreasing government waste, promoting research and development, and privatizing certain government-owned companies.

The National Highway Development Project and Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana were among the initiatives of Vajpayee. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan campaign was initiated by the Vajpayee government in 2001 to improve the quality of education in primary and secondary schools.

Retirement

Vajpayee announced his retirement from active politics in December 2005, stating that in the next general election he would not contest. Vajpayee announced in a popular declaration at the BJP Silver Jubilee Rally at Shivaji Park in Mumbai that “Lal Krishna Advani and Pramod Mahajan will be the BJP’s Ram-Lakshman from now on.

Personal Life

Vajpayee stayed his whole life as a bachelor. He adopted & raised the daughter of longtime friend Rajkumari Kaul and BN Kaul named Namita Bhattacharya and this adopted family till his last days were living with him. Vajpayee has written several prose and poetry works. He made a name for himself as an orator and as a poet and his book Meri Ekyaavan Kavitayein (My 51 Poems) which is a collation of his poems, reflect it.

Legacy

In a speech in the Rajya Sabha, Vajpayee was referred to as the Bhishma Pitamah of Indian politics by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a reference to the character of the Hindu epic Mahabharata.

In 2012, he was ranked number 9 in Outlook India’s poll of the Greatest Indian. In 2015 he was conferred with Bharat Ratna. In 2018, four Himalayan peaks near Gangotri glacier were named after his name.

Known for his significant pauses as well as for its poetic oratory, the legacy of Mr. Vajpayee is now in the realm of authors of history. What he says about himself and his lengthy career in the government life of India is likely best encapsulated in his poem: “Kaal ke kapaal par likhta mitaata hoon, geet naya gaata hoon (I write and erase lines on the forehead of time, I sing a new song)”.

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