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Atal Bihari Vajpayee: Poet-politician and one of India’s most charismatic leaders

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Nehru is said to have introduced a young Vajpayee to a foreign dignitary, saying, ‘This young man one day will become the country’s prime minister.’

New Delhi: In the 1990s, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was hardening its line as a polarising Hindutva party, its most popular and arguably its most charismatic leader ever — Atal Bihari Vajpayee — was honing his image as a moderate, perhaps even a liberal.

Ironically, in 1983 he had made a highly provocative speech during the Assam elections against Bangladeshi immigrants, a hot button issue, forcing even the BJP to disown it.

But that was Vajpayee — politically astute, highly adaptive and replete with the ability to cleverly confuse.

Vajpayee, the first leader from his party to become Prime Minister, had received an unlikely vote of confidence in his early days from Jawaharlal Nehru, also the first PM from his party.

After Vajpayee was elected to the Lok Sabha from Balrampur in 1957 (he contested from three seats — finished runner-up in Lucknow and lost his deposit in Mathura), his eloquence and charisma got noticed quickly. It is widely cited that the same year, while introducing Vajpayee to a foreign dignitary, Nehru said, “This young man one day will become the country’s Prime Minister.”

Forty years later, Vajpayee failed to win a vote of confidence in Parliament. In 1996, when he did become the PM, he resigned in 13 daysafter realising he wouldn’t have the numbers to prove his government’s majority in the House. That was his first stint as PM.

After the 1998 general elections, the BJP managed to cobble support from other parties under the NDA umbrella and Vajpayee was sworn in as PM. Unfortunately for him, this stint too ended abruptly, lasting 13 months, after he lost the trust vote in April 1999 by just one vote.


Also read: The life and times of Atal Bihari Vajpayee


It was third time lucky for him, when, a few months later, the BJP scored a handsome majority in the September general elections. Vajpayee became Prime Minister and completed a full term.

Moderate vs Hardline

Born to Krishna Devi and Krishna Bihari Vajpayee on 25 December, 1924, in Gwalior, Vajpayee joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as a swayamsevak in 1939. He became a full-time worker or pracharak in 1947.

Vajpayee was among the many opposition leaders jailed during the 1975-77 Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. In the 1977 general elections that followed, the Congress lost for the first time, as an alliance of opposition parties — the Janata Party — came to power, and Vajpayee was sworn in as the External Affairs Minister in the Morarji Desai government. He hit headlines when he chose to deliver a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in Hindi, becoming the first to do so.

It was in 1980 that Vajpayee came together with other Jana Sangh and RSS leaders to form the BJP.

In 1983, Assam witnessed a particularly violent and troubled assembly election. Vajpayee decided to take the hardline and made what can only be described as an incendiary speech against migrants in the state. The state ended up witnessing the very violent and infamous Nellie massacre.

However, as the BJP sharpened its Hindutva edge towards the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, Vajpayee chose to remain more on the sidelines. A contradiction in the BJP was drawn up with its tallest leaders moulding themselves in distinct roles — a moderate Vajpayee and a hardline L.K. Advani.

When the 2002 Gujarat riots took place, Vajpayee, as Prime Minister, famously reminded then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to perform his “raj dharma”.


Also read: A Lesson from the Vajpayee school of large-hearted leadership


But Vajpayee, who had a complex relationship with the Sangh as PM, could transition seamlessly between his moderate, statesman-like face and the hardcore Sangh Hindutva one. Even as he reminded Modi to perform his “raj dharma”, Vajpayee in April 2002 at a public rally chose to hint that the Gujarat riots were triggered by the Godhra train killings. “Aag lagayi kisne? Aag faily kaise? (Who lit the fire and how did it spread?),” he said.

Kargil & Kashmir

As PM, Vajpayee had an eventful tenure. The May 1998 nuclear tests in Pokhran and the 1999 Kargil war cemented his image as the tough leader. But the hijacking of the Kathmandu-Delhi Indian Airlines flight IC 814 in December 1999, where the government buckled under pressure and gave in to the hijackers’ demand of releasing three militants, dented his government’s ‘teflon’ image. It continues to haunt the BJP.

Meanwhile, his push for a peace process with Pakistan — which included the inauguration of the Delhi-Lahore bus service and the Lahore declaration — furthered his statesman-like aura. 

Vajpayee is also remembered for his approach towards Kashmir, which was a departure from his party’s otherwise hardline stance. After returning from Jammu and Kashmir in 2003, he famously advocated “Insaniyat, Kashmiriyat, jamhooriyat (humanity, Kashmir’s composite culture and democracy)” to resolve the dispute in the state, saying the gun would help solve no problem.

In his last Independence Day speech as PM, Vajpayee reiterated his commitment to a peace process with Pakistan. “Our frequent initiatives to normalise relations with Pakistan are not a sign of our weakness; rather, they are an indication of our commitment to peace,” he said.

His government, confident of storming back to power, advanced the Lok Sabha elections in 2004, with the ‘India Shining’ slogan as its key campaign. The move misfired, and a Congress-led coalition came to power. The following year, in December, Vajpayee declared retirement from active politics. 

A man who brought into vogue a heady concoction of politics and poetry, Vajpayee will be remembered equally for both. 

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1 COMMENT

  1. Hazaaron saal nargis apni benoori pe roti hai. Badi mushqil se hota hai chaman mein deedawar paida. Those words could have been written for PM Vajpayeeji. At a time when politics has become so fractious and divisive, his qualities, the way he lived his political life, will be remembered with affection. Bahut bada dil tha, jaise Raja ka hona chahiye. Rest in peace.

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