Atal Bihari Vajpayee, former PM and Bharat Ratna, passes away at 93
Politician , Poet. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was two time Prime Minister of India, first from 16 May to 1 June 1996, and then from 19 March 1998 to 22 May 2004. A member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Vajpayee served as the eleventh Prime Minister of India. 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.
As 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.
Vajpayee had introduced many domestic economic and infrastructural reforms, including encouraging the private sector and foreign investments, reducing governmental waste, encouraging research and development and privatisation of some government owned corporations. The UPA Government on 1 July 2013 accepted before Supreme Court that National Democratic Alliance Government led by Vajpayee has developed half the roads in last 32 years in their 5-year term. 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.
Vajpayee’s pet projects were the National Highways Development Project and Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana. He will be remembered for his Golden Quadrilateral project.
In March 2000, Bill Clinton, the President of the United States, paid a state visit to India. His was the first state visit to India by a US President in 22 years. President Clinton’s visit to India was hailed as a significant milestone in the relations between the two countries. Since the visit came barely two years after the Pokhran tests, and one year after the Kargil invasion and the subsequent coup in Pakistan, it was read to reflect a major shift in the post-Cold War foreign policy of the United States. The Indian Prime Minister and the U.S. President discussed strategic issues, but the major achievement was significant expansion in trade and economic ties. The Historic Vision Document on the future course of relations between the two countries was signed by Prime Minister Vajpayee and President Clinton during the visit.
Domestically, the BJP-led government was under constant pressure from its ideological mentor, the RSS, and the hard-line VHP to enact the Hindutva agenda. But owing to its dependence on coalition support, it was impossible for the BJP to push items like building the Ram Janmabhoomi temple in Ayodhya, repealing Article 370 which gave a special status to the state of Kashmir, or enacting a uniform civil code applicable to adherents of all religions. On 17 January 2000, there were reports of the RSS and some BJP hard-liners threatening to restart the Jan Sangh, the precursor to the BJP, because of their discontent over Atal Bihari Vajpayee rule. Former president of the Jan Sangh, Balraj Madhok, had written a letter to the then RSS chief, Rajendra Singh for support. The BJP was, however, accused of saffronising (saffron being the colour of the flag of the RSS, symbol of the Hindu nationalism movement) the official state education curriculum and apparatus. Also, Home Minister L.K. Advani and Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi were indicted in the 1992 Babri Mosque demolition case for inciting a mob of activists. Vajpayee himself came under public scrutiny owing to his controversial speech one day prior to the mosque demolition. The RSS also routinely criticised the government for free-market policies which introduced foreign goods and competition at the expense of ‘swadeshi’ industries and products.
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.
Vajpayee’s administration earned the ire of many trade unions and government workers for its aggressive campaign to privatise government owned corporations. Vajpayee promoted pro-business, free market reforms to reinvigorate India’s economic transformation and expansion that were started by the former PM Narasimha Rao but stalled after 1996 due to unstable governments and the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Increased competitiveness, extra funding and support for the information technology sector and high-tech industries, improvements in infrastructure, deregulation of trade, investments and corporate laws —- all increased foreign capital investment and set in motion an economic expansion.
These couple of years of reform however were accompanied by infighting in the administration and confusion regarding the direction of government. Vajpayee’s weakening health was also a subject of public interest, and he underwent a major knee-replacement surgery at the Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai to relieve great pressure on his legs.
In March 2001, the Tehelka group released the sting operation video named Operation West End showing videos of the BJP President Bangaru Laxman, senior army officers and NDA members accepting bribes from journalists posing as agents and businessmen. The Defence Minister George Fernandes was forced to resign following the Barak Missile scandal, another scandal involving the botched supplies of coffins for the soldiers killed in Kargil, and the findings of an inquiry commission that the Government could have prevented the Kargil invasion.
Vajpayee again broke the ice in the Indo-Pak relations by inviting Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to Delhi and Agra for a joint summit and peace talks. His second major attempt to move beyond the stalemate involved inviting the man who had planned the Kargil invasions. But accepting him as the President of Pakistan, Vajpayee chose to move forward. But after three days of much fanfare, which included Musharraf visiting his birthplace in Delhi, the summit failed to achieve a breakthrough as President Musharraf declined to leave aside the issue of Kashmir.
In 2001, the Vajpayee government launched the famous Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, which aimed at improving the quality of education in primary and secondary schools.
A great administrative chief of the country, a great opposition leader with his forward looking approach, a great orator with his majestic command over language, a great inspiration to the next generation, an ultimate honorable, ethical leader with countless level of acceptability —- all these qualities altogether had made Vajpayeeji an unparalleled administrator who was able to represent himself as the successful leader with his clarity of thoughts, foresightedness and the sense of equalities and parities.