As the first non-Congress politician to complete five years as prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s premiership was as significant as it was eventful in shaping India’s democracy and putting the country on the road to economic progress. From leading a delegation at United Nations to introducing Lahore bus service to resolving the vexed Kashmir issue with Pakistan, Vajpayee won the hearts of Indians and even the opposition. An orator par excellence, who gave some of the memorable speeches that will remain etched in the annals of Indian parliamentary history, Vajpayee has carved out a niche for himself as one of the shrewdest politicians the country has ever had.
Called the “Bheeshm Pitamah of Indian politics”, Vajpayee’s six years in government — from 1998 to 2004 — saw governance and development take centrestage at a time when the political discourse in the country was seen through the prism of caste, religion and political instability. A statesman, accepted by politicians across party lines, it was through Vajpayee’s astute realpolitik that he changed the image of the BJP from being seen as a party with hardline rightist leanings, stemming from the demolition of the Babri masjid, to one being respected by allies.
Here are the top 10 events that shaped Vajpayee’s PM tenure:
1. Foreign policy: In the post-Cold War world, Vajpayee boosted trade and bilateral relations with the US leading to the historic visit in 2000 by Bill Clinton, who became the first American President to visit India since Jimmy Carter in 1978. Besides promoting economic ties between India and China, his government also initiated a structured mechanism for high-level dialogue to resolve the border dispute between the two countries. Vajpayee’s ‘Look East’ policy helped in improving India’s ties with countries in South-East Asia and East Asia.
2. Extending olive branch to Pakistan: There is no doubt that Vajpayee’s greatest foreign policy moves lay in his efforts to normalise ties with Pakistan. In February 19, 1999, he inaugurated the Delhi-Lahore bus service and travelled in it to meet his counterpart Nawaz Sharif. This incident became a symbol of international diplomacy and Vajpayee was lauded for his pragmatism. The visit paved way for the two PMs to agree on the Lahore Declaration, which put forth common goals of peace and had several contents, including nuclear non-proliferation and increased trade relations. In 2001, he also engaged with Pervez Musharraf to iron out long standing issues. However, the talks were a failure.
3. Catapulting India on the nuclear map: One of the hallmarks of Vajpayee’s reign was the Pokhran-II nuclear bomb tests, which were conducted clandestinely at the Pokhran Test Range in Rajasthan’s Jaisalmer district in May 1998. Under Pokhran-II, five underground nuclear bomb explosions took place on May 1998, in what came to be known as the CIA’s biggest intelligence failure. Vajpayee’s strategically important and courageous decision made India a nuclear weapons power even though it resulted in sanctions by the US and the European Union.
4. Kargil War: Vajpayee’s prime ministership tenure was also characterised by the 1999 Kargil war with Pakistan and the latter’s subsequent defeat was a major achievement of the government. The 1999 Kargil war, christened Operation Vijay, was fought between May and July 1999 and was necessitated after Pakistani soldiers and Kashmiri militants infiltrated into India across the Line of Control. The war finally came to an end after US President Bill Clinton spoke to Vajpayee on recommendation of Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan took back its troops after suffering heavy damage.
5. Education and economic policies: Atal Bihari Vajpayee laid the foundation of Sarva Siksha Abhiyan, which made education for children aged 6 to 14 years a fundamental right. Besides, he also unveiled the National Highway Development Project (NHDP) to construct world-class highways in India, connecting the four major cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata (‘Golden Quadrilateral’).
Vajpayee’s bigger achievements were on the economic front. The New Telecom Policy unleashed the telecom revolution in India by replacing fixed license fees for telecom firms with a revenue-sharing arrangement and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd was born.
He also kept the economy in a great shape despite natural disasters, oil crises, 9/11 and the Kargil War. The GDP rate was above 8 per cent, inflation was below 4 per cent and foreign exchange reserves were overflowing.
6. First UN speech in Hindi: Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s UNGA address on September 13, 2002, is celebrated for being the first one delivered in Hindi. However, there are more substantial issues it should be remembered for. For the first time, an Indian PM took on Pakistan’s use of terror in the United Nations. He had said he would negotiate on Kashmir when terrorism stopped — and, interestingly, levels of violence fell to almost zero in 2002.
7. Vajpayee’s 13-day government: One of his most noted speeches came on the floor of the Parliament in 1996 when he resigned after lasting only 13 days as prime minister due to lack of numbers. “Governments come and go and parties are born and disappear. Above it all, the country must stay shining, its democracy immortal,” Vajpayee said.
8. Leading the first successful coalition government: At a time when coalition politics was a new entrant in India, Vajpayee led a large coalition of parties with diverse backgrounds and ideologies and became the first PM to successfully lead such a government. Vajpayee also became the first non-Congress PM to complete five years in power and the third overall.
9. Kandahar plane hijack: On December 24, 1999, Indian Airlines Flight IC-814 from Kathmandu to New Delhi with 176 passengers and 15 crew members was hijacked by Pakistan-based extremist group Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, who demanded the release of three terrorists held in Indian prisons. The then Atal Bihari Vajpayee government surrendered to their demands and the then foreign minister Jaswant Singh himself escorted the terrorists to Kandahar.
10. Gujarat riots and message for Narendra Modi: For almost a period of three months, Gujarat reeled under communal rioting following the death of 59 pilgrims in Godhra after the burning of Sabarmati Express. Over 1,000 people died and thousands were displaced. The Vajpayee government was widely criticised for inefficient handling of the violence and earned the then PM a bad name, more so, because a BJP government was in power in Gujarat under Narendra Modi. In a rebuke to the then Gujarat CM, Vajpayee famously stated that Modi should ‘follow his Rajdharma’ and not discriminate on the basis of caste, creed or religion.
Here’s a timeline of major events in the former Prime Minister’s life: