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Saturday, January 23, 2021

No one like Atalji

Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s popularity transcended political divides.

Written by Prabhat Jha | New Delhi | Updated: December 24, 2020 10:21:05 pm
Bharat Ratna Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister of India once for 13 days, second time for 13 months and third time for four and a half years.

In the last seven decades of politics, a personality emerged in India and the country accepted it easily. In the way history happens, a leader too is born. One such leader was Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Many researchers are working on Atalji’s life, his thoughts, his conduct as leader of opposition, as the prime minister of India, his understanding of foreign policy, life in Parliament, oratory, how he left an indelible impression on the psyche of the public mind and so on. The consensus today is there has no politician like Atalji

Bharat Ratna Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister of India once for 13 days, second time for 13 months and third time for four and a half years. That Atalji became the Prime Minister of India was the wish not only of the BJP, but the whole country. As an opposition leader, he had travelled the length and breadth of the country multiple times and addressed public rallies innumerable times. In his speeches, he connected with every listener.

There was rhythm and uniformity in Atalji’s conduct and words. Irrespective of whether he was in the opposition or in office, he was a “political hero” for many senior leaders of his time. Atalji was the leader of Jan Sangh, and later of the BJP, but people across party lines considered him their own. Such was his aura. For instance, in 1994, the then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao appointed him the leader of India’s delegation to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Atalji was then in the opposition. It revealed the cross-party acceptance he had and admiration he received even from his opponents. The precedent until then was that the Prime Minister of India or senior ministers led the delegation. Be it Indiraji or Chandrashekhar, all former prime ministers showed respect to him in Parliament.

There are many who believed that the state of India would have been different had Atalji become the Prime Minister of India a decade earlier. When the Janata Party formed the government in 1977 after winning the elections that followed the Emergency, Prime Minister Morarji Desai made Atalji his Foreign Minister. When Atalji spoke in Hindi at the United Nations, the whole of India felt the honour and pride. He always worked for enhancing the dignity of India and glorifying “Bharat Mata”.

As prime minister, Atalji believed that India had every right to its security. Under his leadership, India conducted a nuclear test in Pokhran in May 1998. This was India’s first nuclear test since 1974. India emerged as a strong and powerful country with this test. It paved the way for India to become a nuclear superpower.

On December 13, 2001, the Indian Parliament was attacked by terrorists. Many security personnel were martyred in this attack. There was a demand for stricter laws for internal security, and the government under Atalji enacted the POTA, a very strong anti-terrorism law, which was considered to be more stringent than TADA, the 1995 law. However, critics alleged that the government was targeting opponents. The law was repealed when the UPA government came to power in 2004.

Atalji always talked about better relations with Pakistan. He took the initiative to improve the relationship between the two countries. The Delhi-Lahore bus service was started in February 1999 when he was prime minister. In the first service, he himself took the bus to Lahore and signed the Lahore document with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Atalji also visited Minar-e-Pakistan during his visit to Lahore. Till then none of the Congress prime ministers of India could muster the courage to go to Minar-e-Pakistan. Minar-e-Pakistan is the place where the proposal to build Pakistan was passed on March 23, 1940.

Before the formation of Atalji’s government in 1999, the HD Deve Gowda government had approved a caste-based census. The Census was to be held in 2001, the first time after the implementation of the Mandal Commission’s recommendations. The demand for a caste census was to see if the Commission’s provisions were being implemented properly. The judicial system was repeatedly asked to gather data so that a concrete working system could be created. The then Registrar General also approved the caste census. But the government under the leadership of Atalji reversed this decision.

As prime minister, Atalji had taken an important decision to lay a network of roads to unify the country, which was named the Golden Quadrilateral Road Project. He implemented the project to connect Chennai, Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai. The whole country is today benefitting from that landmark decision. Today, it has become easier for the common man to go from one state to another. He also implemented the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana for rural areas in addition to large metros. Through this scheme, a good road was constructed in all the villages. This facilitated traffic and provided good business opportunities to the villagers.

The credit for bringing telecom revolution in the country and making it reach the villages also goes to Atalji. In 1999, the government under his leadership ended the monopoly of BSNL and implemented a new telecom policy. Through the new policy, call rates became cheaper and the trend of using mobile phones increased. It was only after this decision that telecom operators started offering mobile services.

Atalji’s greatest achievement was on the economic front. He carried forward the economic reforms initiated during the Narasimha Rao government in 1991. When Manmohan Singh became PM in 2004, the economy was very strong. The GDP growth rate was over 8 per cent, the inflation rate was less than 4 per cent and foreign exchange reserves were at record levels.

The “Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan”, a campaign to give free education to children between 6 and 14 years, was started during the tenure of Atalji. This revolutionary campaign led to an unprecedented increase in literacy and education rates. People gave importance to studies and instead of sending their children to work, started sending them to school. This campaign of the Vajpayee government paved the way for widespread social change.

Since the time of Nehruji, the Congress and many opposition parties have claimed that the Jana Sangh and the BJP were communal outfits. Atalji gave a befitting reply to these critics by making eminent scientist Abdul Kalam the President of India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi did justice by bestowing the Bharat Ratna on Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

(The writer is a former Rajya Sabha MP)

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