Atal Bihari Vajpayee - Bharat Ratna of Indian politics shines as India’s liberal leader
It was a truly solemn and emotional moment througout the country, as Atal Bihari Vajpayee, former prime minister of India and BJP icon, who was born on Christmas day - December 25, 1924, finally gave up his battle for life and breathed his last on Thursday. He passed away at 5.05 pm at AIIMS Delhi, surrounded by top national leaders from all parties across the country amid tight security. As the nation mourns his death, one recalls the BJP stalwart as a tall statesman and an orator par excellence.
It was the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru who saw in the young 28-year-old orator Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the future of the country’s prime minister. After the country and the world sat up and noticed Vajpayee as a witty and humorous orator with spark after his maiden speech in the Lok Sabha as a first-time Member of Parliament in 1957, Nehru introduced him to a foreign dignitary as the ‘future prime minister of the country’.
It took time, but Nehru’s prophecy did come true and Vajpayee became the head of the state on three different occasions – the first one for 13 days, the second for 13 months and the third stint lasting the full term of five years – becoming the first non-Congress leader completing a full term in office of the Prime Minister in 2004.
The India Shining campaign that ended Vajpayee’s Shining period
In hindsight, perhaps, it was a mistake of the BJP strategists then that they took up an India Shining campaign that put a lid on the shining period of Vajpayee stewardship of the nation, guiding it on the same path but with greater speed and purpose. His regime was known for the Golden Quadrangle of highways that accelerated the vehicular movement across the country and developed towns and villages along the expressways and highways.
Vajpayee – the right man in the wrong place
A liberal at heart and secular in practice, Vajpayee was often described as “the right man in the wrong party”. But this did not deter him as he soldiered on relentlessly in what he believed in and worked in tandem with his long-time colleague Lal Krishna Advani, in comparison to whom Vajpayee stood out as the most liberal face of the Bharatiya Janata Party. He had led the party and when under his leadership, the strength of the BJP was reduced to two MPs in the Lok Sabha, Vajpayee stepped aside owning moral responsibility.
The Lines that made Vajpayee the Man of the masses
The Bharat Ratna awardee, one of the very few in politics, Vajpayee won and lost many a political battle. But what the 93-year-old liberal leader earned in his long public life is name for himself as the man of the masses. His oratory with his patent, trade-mark pauses, wit and humour and quick repartee in parliament debates and outside won him countless admirers among the masses and leaders cutting across party lines. A poet at heart and a scholar, he has written many books. Perhaps this commonality of interests got him a good friend in Congress veteran and Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao.
It was his stature, capabilities and qualities that made Narasimha Rao entrust the leadership of the Indian delegation to the Geneva UN Human Rights Commission meet to Vajpayee in March 1994. He and the then external affairs minister Salman Khurshid, assisting Vajpayee and the delegation, was accorded a Hero’s welcome usually reserved for any victorious Indian cricket team for “defeating Pakistan in its game of keeping Kashmir issue alive at the international body.” Vajpayee and his team, truly constituting a “national government” India has never had, foiled a Pakistani attempt to pillory India through a resolution at the UN Human Rights Commission.
But this victory meant little for the man who wanted to resolve all outstanding issues with Pakistan, including Jammu and Kashmir in a peaceful manner through bilateral dialogues without any third-party intervention. All through his premiership, first for 13 days in 1996, then for 13 months in 1998 and again for a full five-year term in 1999, this was the peace formula he pursued. It was this message that he carried on the bus journey to Lahore in February 1999, to launch the Delhi-Lahore bus service Sada-e-Sarhad.
The Operation Shakti - Pokhran Nuclear tests - that empowered Vajpayee
If patience and tact were his virtues, Vajpayee showed he was bold and could take on the biggest global superpowers when he pressed the button of Pokhran Nuclear Tests, declaring to a stunned world that India had joined the nuclear-powered nations. The success of “Operation Shakti” in Pokhran on May 13, 1998 had the nuclear world aghast. But Vajpayee defended this nuclear power as a ‘deterrent’ unlike a weapon of mass destruction that some in the world viewed.
Vajpayee braved on and took the nation along with him and faced economic sanctions that followed the Pokhran Nuclear Tests. India emerged stronger under his leadership.
Vajpayee - The man who was born on Christmas day
Vajpayee entered the Lok Sabha from Balrampur in UP in the second general elections in 1957 and was a parliamentarian for 47 years. He was elected to Lok Sabha 11 times and was twice a member of the Rajya Sabha.
For Vajpayee, success was hard fought and well-earned. Born on Christmas day in 1924 into the family of a teacher had seen his share of poverty.
Academics were his focus and young Vajpayee completed his Masters in political science from Victoria College in Gwalior and later studied in DAV College in Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh. Here he had his first brush with electoral politics – contested and lost college elections. Even in his defeat, Vajpayee left an indelible mark on the minds of the people with his oratory that seemed to come naturally to him.
By then drawn to the RSS ideology and way of life, he embraced the RSS and remained a bachelor all his life.
His struggle in politics continued for a long time and during the 1975 emergency, Vajpayee was also among the thousands imprisoned and in the general elections after lifting of emergency in 1977, he was also part of the Janata Party that swept to power dethroning Indira Gandhi.
Vajpayee had opponents and did not have enemies. He even described Indira Gandhi as Maa Durga and earned criticism from his own party colleagues.
The Lowest dip in Vajpayee’s political career
But the lowest point of his political career was when he lost in Gwalior in 1984, in the election that were held after Gandhi’s assassination. From here on, Vajpayee was overtaken by his colleague LK Advani, whose rabble-rousing Hindutva was something the liberal in Vajpayee could not endorse. After Babri masjid demolition, Vajpayee’s was the lone voice of remorse and described it as the “worst miscalculation”.
As prime minister, Vajpayee had even criticised Gujarat chief minister belonging to his own party, Narendra Modi for the communal clashes in which several were killed. But then, he had to eventually defend Modi.
After Vajpayee government lost in 2004 in general elections that the BJP was thought to be winning, Vajpayee the statesman politicians stepped into self-imposed retirement of sorts.