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Atal Bihari Vajpayee (born December 25, 1924), is an Indian statesman, who served as the eleventh Prime Minister of India. After a brief stint as Prime Minister in 1996, Vajpayee headed a coalition government from March 19, 1998 until May 19, 2004. He served as a Member of Parliament (MP) from Lucknow until 2009, and has since retired from active politics.
Education and Personal Life
He earned a masters degree in political science from the Victoria College (now Laxmibai College) and DAV College, Kanpur.He is well-known for being a poet, eminent journalist, and has published a book of poetry. He is a bachelor, and has adopted daughters of Mrs & Mr. B. N. Kaul: Nandita (Nanni) and Namita (Gunu). Nandita is a doctor in US and Namita lives in Delhi. Nandita is married to Ashok Nanda, a software engineer and Namita is married to Ranjan Bhattacharya and has a daughter. He is the first and thus far, only, bachelor Prime Minister of India.
Early Political Career
Vajpayee's first contact with politics occurred in 1942, when he was arrested during the Quit India movement. He soon became a close follower and aide to Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the leader of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS). Vajpayee was at Mookerjee's side when he went on a fast-unto-death in Kashmir in 1953, to protest what the BJS claimed inferior treatment of non-Kashmiri Indian visitors in Kashmir. Mookerjee's fast and protest ended the identity carrogram, the centerpiece of national security in the Cold War world, especially with neighboring China being a nuclear power. (In 1974, India had become the sixth nuclear power of the world when she conducted an underground nuclear test at Pokhran.) Although he resigned in 1979 when the government politically attacked the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), he had established his credentials as an experienced statesman and a respected political leader. During this tenure, he also became the first person to deliver a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in Hindi (in 1977), the "most unforgettable" moment in his life by his own admission.
The rise of the BJP
The Janata government did not last long. Morarji Desai resigned as Prime Minister, and the Janata party was dissolved soon after. The BJS had devoted political organization to sustain the coalition and was left exhausted by the internecine wars within the Janata Party.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, along with many BJS and RSS colleagues, particularly his long-time and close friends Lal Krishna Advani and Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, founded the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1980. Vajpayee became its first President. The BJP was a strong critic of the Congress (I) government that followed the Janata rule, and while it opposed the Sikh militancy that was rising in the state of Punjab, it also blamed Indira Gandhi for divisive and corrupt politics that fostered the militancy at national expense. Leader Darasingh opines that Vajpayee thus "brought in Hindu-Sikh harmony."
Although it supported Operation Bluestar, the BJP strongly protested violence against Sikhs in Delhi that broke out in 1984 following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by one of her Sikh bodyguards. Vajpayee was known and commended for protecting Sikhs against Congress-followers seeking to avenge the death of their leader. The BJP was left with only two parliamentary seats in the 1984 elections; the party, however, had established itself in the mainstream of Indian politics, and soon began expanding its organization to attract young Indians throughout the country. During this period Vajpayee remained center-stage as party President and Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, but increasingly hard-line Hindu nationalists began to rise within the party and define its politics.
The BJP became the political voice of the Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir Movement, which was led by activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the RSS, and was seeking to build a temple dedicated to Lord Rama at the site of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. Hindu activists believed the site was the birthplace of the Lord, and thus qualified as one of the most sacred sites of Hinduism.
On December 6, 1992, hundreds of VHP and BJP activists broke down an organized protest into a frenzied attack, and brought down the mosque. Over the following weeks, waves of violence between Hindus and Muslims erupted in various parts of the country, killing over 1000 people. The VHP was banned by the government, and many BJP leaders including Lal Krishna Advani were arrested briefly for provoking the destruction. Although widely condemned by many across the country for playing politics with sensitive issues, the BJP won the support of millions of conservative Hindus, as well as national prominence.
With victory in assembly elections of Gujarat and Maharashtra in March 1995, and a good performance in the elections to the Karnataka assembly in December 1994 propelled the BJP to the centerstage. During the BJP session at Mumbai in November 1995, BJP President L.K.Advani declared that Vajpayee would be the Prime Minister of India if the BJP won next parliamentary elections held in May 1996.
Prime Minister of India
First Term: May 1996
Political energy and expansion made BJP the single-largest political party in the Lok Sabha elected in 1996. Asked to form the government, A.B. Vajpayee was sworn in as Prime Minister, but the BJP failed to gather enough support from other parties to form a majority. Vajpayee resigned after just 13 days, when it became clear that he could not garner a majority.
Second Term: 1998-1999
After the fall of two governments by the third-front between 1996 and 1998, the Parliament was dissolved and fresh elections were held. These elections again put the BJP at the head. This time, a cohesive bloc of political parties lined up with it to form the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and A.B. Vajpayee was sworn in as the Prime Minister. The NDA proved its majority in parliament. Towards the end of 1998 however, the AIADMK under J. Jayalalitha withdrew its support from the 13-month old government. The government lost the ensuing vote of confidence motion by a single vote. As the Opposition was unable to come up with the numbers to form the new government, the country returned to elections with Vajpayee remaining the "care-taker Prime Minister".
Third Term: 1999-2004
On October 13, 1999, Atal Bihari Vajpayee took oath as Prime Minister of India for the third time. The BJP-led NDA had won 303 seats in the 543 seat Lok Sabha in the aftermath of Kargil operations, thereby securing a comfortable, stable majority. The coalition government that was formed lasted its full term of 5 years – the only non-Congress government to do so.
A national crisis popped up in December 1999, when an Indian Airlines flight (IC 814 from Nepal) was hijacked by Pakistani terrorists and flown to Taliban ruled Afghanistan. The hijackers made several demands including the release certain Kashmiri terrorists like Maulana Masood Azhar, from prison. The government ultimately caved in and Jaswant Singh, the Indian External Affairs minister, flew with the terrorists to Afghanistan and exchanged them for the passengers. No explanation was given by the Indian government for the External Affairs minister personally escorting the terrorists. The crisis also worsened the relationship between India and Pakistan, as the hijacked plane was allowed to re-fuel in Lahore, and all the hijackers, except one, were Pakistanis.
National Highways Development Project, foreign policy and economic reform
Vajpayee oversaw his National Highway Development Project and Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana begin construction, in which he took a personal interest.
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 Mandir 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. The BJP was however accused of saffron-ising (saffron is the color of the flag of the RSS, symbol of the Hindu nationalism movement) the official state education curriculum and apparatus. Home Minister L.K. Advani and HRD minister Murli Manohar Joshi were indicted in the 1992 Babri Mosque demolition case for inciting the mob of activists. The RSS also routinely criticized the government for free-market policies which introduced foreign goods and competition at the expense of home industries and products.
In March 2001, the Tehelka group released incriminating videos of the BJP President Bangaru Laxman, senior army officers and NDA members accepting bribes from journalists posing as agents and businessmen. While the scandals were not linked to Vajpayee personally, the Defence Minister George Fernandes was forced to resign following this Barak Missile Deal Scandal, another scandal involving the botched supplies of coffins for the soldiers killed in Kargil, and the finding of an inquiry commission that the Government could have prevented the Kargil invasion. These developments as well as an ambiguous response of the economy to the reforms, reduced the Vajpayee administration's popularity and undermined its future.
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 tensions 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.
Attack on Parliament
On December 13, 2001, a group of masked, armed men with fake IDs stormed the Parliament building in Delhi. The terrorists managed to kill several security guards, but the building was sealed off swiftly and security forces cornered and killed the men, who were later proven to be Pakistan nationals. Coming just three months after the September 11 attacks upon the United States, this fresh escalation instantly enraged the nation. Although the Government of Pakistan officially condemned the attack, Indian intelligence reports pointed the finger at a conspiracy rooted in Pakistan. Prime Minister Vajpayee ordered a mobilization of India's military forces, and as many as 500,000 servicemen amassed along the international boundary bordering Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Kashmir. Pakistan responded with the same. Vicious terrorist attacks and an aggressive anti-terrorist campaign froze day-to-day life in Kashmir, and foreigners flocked out of both India and Pakistan, fearing a possible war and nuclear exchange. For as long as two years, both nations remained perilously close to a terrible war.
The Vajpayee administrations passed the Prevention of Terrorist Act against vigorous opposition of non-NDA parties. Human rights groups have condemned the act which gives wide authority to the government to crack down and hold anybody. Its repeal was advocated by human rights organisations.
But the biggest political disaster hit between December 2001 and March 2002: the VHP held the Government hostage in a major standoff in Ayodhya over the Ram temple. At the 10th anniversary of the destruction of the Babri mosque, the VHP wanted to perform a sheela daan, or a ceremony laying the foundation stone of the cherished temple at the disputed site. Tens of thousands of VHP activists amassed and threatened to overrun the site and forcibly build the temple. A grave threat of not only communal violence, but an outright breakdown of law and order owing to the defiance of the government by a religious organization hung over the nation.
Post 2004 elections
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was widely expected to retain power after the 2004 general election. The parliament had been dissolved before the completion of term in order to capitalize on the perceived 'feel-good factor' and BJP's recent successes in Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh. The BJP hoped to capitalise on the slogan "India Shining" and released many ads touting the economic growth of the nation.
However, the coalition sidestepped controversial and ideological questions in favour of bread-and-butter economic issues during the campaign and subsequently lost almost half its seats, with several prominent cabinet ministers being defeated. The Indian National Congress, led by Sonia Gandhi became the single largest party and, along with many minor parties, formed the United Progressive Alliance. With the conditional support of the leftist parties from the outside, the UPA formed a government under Dr Manmohan Singh.
Vajpayee attended the swearing-in ceremony of the new government despite his party's decision to boycott it. Vajpayee was criticized for sacrificing core issues like Hindutva and the Ram Temple inorder to please Muslim voters (the BJP lost the Muslim vote by a heavy margin). Vajpayee expressed his anger and frustration at being blamed and at a high-level party meeting, he decided to give up the position of the Leader of the Opposition to Lal Krishna Advani. However, he retained his post as Chairman of the NDA.
In December 2005, Vajpayee announced his retirement from active politics, declaring that he would not participate in the next general election. At a rally in the western city of Mumbai, Vajpayee said "I will not participate in any electoral politics. There are many other leaders to take forward the work which I and other senior leaders have been doing. In a now famous statement at the BJP's silver Jubilee rally at Mumbai's historic Shivaji Park, Vajpayee announced that "from now onwards, Lal Krishna Advani and Pramod Mahajan will be the Ram-Laxman (the two godly brothers much revered and worshipped by Hindus) of the BJP."
Vajpayee was hospitalized at AIIMS for chest infection and fever and on February 6, 2009 he was put on ventilator as his conditioned worsened. It may be noted that at 84, he does not have diabetes or high blood pressure and he is on one kidney for the past 25 years.Vajpayee underwent several knee replacement surgeries during the 90's. Unable to participate in the campaign for the 2009 general election due to his health, he wrote a letter urging voters in his Lucknow constituency to back BJP candidate Lalji Tandon. Finally Lalji Tandon was able to retain the Lucknow seat of Vajpayee even though NDA suffered electoral reverses in that state by just managing to win 15 of the total 80 seats. The tall apolitical image of Vajpayee was said to be the main reason behind Lalji's success in Lucknow even though BJP's position was poor in Uttar Pradesh.