Atal Bihari Vajpayee – Patriot, Orator, Poet, Prime Minister and Statesman

The man whom India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru prophesied to become the Prime Minister of India one day, the man whom the then PM Manmohan Singh called the “Bhishma Pitamah of Indian Politics,” the man who led an Indian delegation to the United Nations for a discussion on the Kashmir issue despite being in the opposition was the former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He continues to remain a revered statesmen in the post independence political life of the country, whom even the opponents regard with respect.

Early Life

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was born to Smt Krishna Devi and Shri Krishna Bihari Vajpayee on 25 December 1924 in a Brahmin family in Gwalior. His grandfather, Pandit Shyam Lal Vajpayee, had migrated there from his ancestral village of Bateshwar, Uttar Pradesh. Vajpayee’s father, Krishna Bihari ji, was a poet and a school teacher in his hometown. Vajpayee studied at Saraswati Shishu Mandir and later went to Victoria College (Now Laxmi Bai College) from where he graduated with distinction in Hindi, English and Sanskrit. He enrolled for post graduation at DAV College, Kanpur and secured first class in M.A. Political science. He was a patriot at heart and participated in India’s struggle for freedom even as a student.

Early Political Career – (1940 – 1970)

Atal Bihari joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as a Swayamsevak in 1939. Influenced by Babasaheb Apte, he attended the Officers Training Camp of the RSS during 1940-44. His activism started with the Arya Kumar Sabha of Gwalior, the youth wing of the Arya Samaj, of which he became the General Secretary in 1944. His first exposure to politics was in August 1942, when he and his elder brother Prem were arrested for 23 days during the Quit India movement. He gave up studying law due to the partition riots. He was sent as a Vistarak (probationary Pracharak) to Uttar Pradesh and quickly began working for the newspapers of Pandit Deendayal Upadhyay’s Rashtradharma (a Hindi monthly), Panchjanya (a Hindi weekly) and the dailies, Swadesh and Veer Arjun. He became a Pracharak of RSS in 1947.

In 1951, he was seconded by the RSS, along with Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya, to work for the newly formed Bhartiya Jana Sangh, a Hindu political party founded by Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee. He was appointed as a national secretary of the party in charge of the Northern region, based in Delhi. He soon became a loyal follower of Dr. Mookerjee and supported him during his fast-unto-death in Kashmir in 1954. 

Vajpayee was elected to the Lok Sabha for the first time from Balrampur (U.P.) in 1957. He proved himself to be an excellent orator and gave powerful speeches. By virtue of his oratorical and organizational skills, he became the face of the Jana Sangh. After mysterious death of Deendayal Upadhyay, the leadership of Jana Sangh fell on the shoulders of a young Vajpayee. He became the national president of the Jana Sangh in 1968 and, along with Nanaji Deshmukh, Balraj Madhok and Lal Krishna Advani, led the Jana Sangh to national prominence.

Mainstream Political Struggle – (1970 – 1995)

During 1975 to 1977, Vajpayee was arrested along with several other opposition leaders during Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi. In 1977, heeding the call of social reformer Jayaprakash Narayan for all the opposition parties to unite against the Congress, Vajpayee united the Jana Sangh with Bhartiya Janta Dal and  Socialist Party to form a grand-alliance, the Janata Party.

Following the Janata Party’s victory in the 1977 General Elections, Vajpayee became the External Affairs Minister in Morarji Desai’s cabinet. As foreign minister that year, Vajpayee became the first person to deliver a speech to the UN General Assembly in Hindi. By the time the Janata Govt. crumbled in 1979, Vajpayee had established himself as an experienced statesman and a respected political leader.

The Janata Party was dissolved following Morarji Desai’s resignation as Prime Minister in 1979. The Jana Sangh had devoted its political organization to sustain the coalition and was left exhausted by the internecine political wars within the Janata Party. Vajpayee joined many of his Bharatiya Jana Sangh and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh colleagues, particularly his long-time friends L. K. Advani and Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and formed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1980 and became the party’s first president.

Here is Vajpayee’s first speech as BJP President.

The rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party

Vajpayee became a strong critic of the Congress (I) government. While the BJP opposed the Sikh militancy that was rising in the state of Punjab, it also blamed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for divisive and corrupt politics that fostered such militancy at expense of the nation. Vajpayee tried his best to bring back Hindu-Sikh harmony. The BJP did not support Operation Bluestar, and strongly protested against the bloody massacre of Sikhs in Delhi that broke out in 1984 following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Vajpayee was commended for protecting Sikhs against Congress supporters seeking to avenge the death of Mrs Gandhi.

Following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, riding on huge sympathy wave, Congress swept the polls in 1984. The BJP was left with only two parliamentary seats. However, the party 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. Vajpayee worked tirelessly to build the party and in the next parliamentary elections in 1989 BJP won 88 seats.  By 1991, BJP had emerged as the principal opposition party and the party won 120 seats in 1991 parliamentary elections.

The Duo

Through the 90s and the first few years of the 21st century, the Atal-Advani combination steered the BJP to heights it had never before witnessed. Their political relationship provided stability, continuity, experience and authority to a party that was beginning even then, to severely lack a solid second-rung. As Advani himself acknowledged “rarely do two political leaders share such a bond, a working relationship that allows them both to thrive and grow without disturbing the fine balance of that bond”.

The BJP became the political voice of the Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir Movement, which was led by the activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the RSS, which sought to build a temple dedicated to Rama at the site of the controversial Babri mosque in Ayodhya.

Hindu activists believed the site was the birthplace of Rama, and thus qualified as one of the most sacred sites of Hinduism. Victory in the assembly elections in Gujarat and Maharashtra in March 1995, and a good performance in the elections to the Karnataka assembly in December 1994 propelled the BJP to greater political prominence. During a BJP conference in Mumbai in November 1995, BJP President L.K. Advani declared that Vajpayee would be the Prime Minister of India if the BJP won May 1996 parliamentary elections.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee the Prime Minister

The BJP emerged as the single largest party in Lok Sabha in the 1996 general elections. Vajpayee was sworn in as the Prime Minister in May 1996. However, he resigned after 13 days since BJP could not obtain a majority. He was invited to form the government as the leader of the single-largest party, though he did not have the full majority. Here he showed he was a true statesman and not like any other power-hungry politician who would have tried every trick to cobble up a majority and remain in power. But he gracefully put in his papers when he did not get enough support.

Here is the historic speech on the occasion, titled “Here comes my resignation, Mr. Speaker.

He was again sworn in as the Prime Minister in 1998 after BJP emerged as the single largest party again and formed the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) with other political parties. This government lasted for 13 months when fresh elections were held. It was during this period that India entered the Nuclear Club following a series of successful nuclear tests at Pokharan in May 1998. It unambiguously established India as a nuclear state and the country was able to develop a minimum credible deterrent to ward off threats to its security.

The bus journey to Pakistan in February 1999 was widely acclaimed for starting a new era of negotiations to resolve the outstanding problems of the sub-continent. India’s honesty made an impact on the world community. Later, when this gesture of friendship turned out to be a betrayal of faith by Pakistan in Kargil, Vajpayee was also hailed for his successful handling of the situation in repulsing back the intruders from the Indian soil.

Higher GDP, higher agricultural production and increase in foreign exchange reserves during this period were indicative of a forward-looking economy responding to the needs of the people. The BJP-led NDA again emerged as the largest political alliance in the 1999 general elections. Vajpayee was made the Prime Minister for the third time in October 1999.  “We must grow faster. We simply have no other alternative” was Shri Vajpayee’s slogan focusing particularly on economic empowerment of the rural poor. The bold decisions taken by his Government for strengthening rural economy, building a strong infrastructure and revitalizing the human development programs fully demonstrated his Government’s commitment to a strong and self-reliant nation to meet the challenges of the next millennium to make India an economic power in the 21st century. The National Highway Development Project and Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana was his dream project which also included Golden Quadrilateral. Speaking from the ramparts of the Red Fort on the occasion of the 52nd Independence Day, he had said, “I have a vision of India : an India free of hunger and fear, an India free of illiteracy and want.”

Troubled Tenure

A national crisis emerged in December 1999, when the Indian Airlines flight IC814 from Kathmandu to New Delhi was hijacked by five terrorists and flown to Kandahar. The hijackers made several demands including the release of dreaded terrorists like Maulana Masood Azhar from prison. Under extreme pressure, the government ultimately caved in. Jaswant Singh, the Minister for External Affairs at the time, flew with the terrorists to Afghanistan and exchanged them for the passengers.

The Parliament was attacked in December 2001 by Pakistan trained terrorists. Investigations pointed to a conspiracy hatched in Pakistan. For a long time the threat of a full-fledged war between the two nations loomed. The Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002 (POTA) was enacted in the aftermath of the attack. In 2002, Hindu-Muslim violence in the state of Gujarat killed more than 1,000 people. Vajpayee officially condemned the violence but was accused of doing nothing to stop the violence, and later admitted that it could have been handled even better.

One of his speeches, which was twisted by media to ridicule the BJP and the then Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi, where he actually said “I completely believe Narendra Bhai is also performing Rajdharma“.

Here is the video of the relevant press conference.

Ignoring media nuisance, in late 2002 and 2003, his government pushed economic reforms, and the country’s GDP growth accelerated at record levels, exceeding 7-8%. Good crop harvests and strong industrial expansion also helped the economy. Increasing foreign investment, modernization of public and industrial infrastructure, the creation of jobs, a rising high-tech and IT industry and urban modernization and expansion improved the nation’s international image.

Surprisingly, the Congress emerged as the single largest party in the general elections in 2004 and Vajpayee resigned as Prime Minister. He also announced his retirement from active politics in 2005 and didn’t contest the 2009 parliamentary elections.

Vajpayee’s quotable quotes

“Global interdependence today means that economic disasters in developing countries could create a backlash on developed countries.”

“In the euphoria after the Cold War, there was a misplaced notion that the UN could solve every problem anywhere. But the reality is that international institutions like the UN can only be as effective as its members allow it to be.”

“Our nuclear weapons are meant purely as a deterrent against nuclear adventure by an adversary.”

“You can change friends but not neighbors.”

“छोटे मन से कोई बङा नही होता, टूटे मन से कोई खङा नही होता।

मन हार कर मैदान नही जीते जाते, न मैदान जीतने से मन ही जीता जाता है।”


Vajpayee the Poet

Vajpayee claimed that “my poetry is a declaration of war, not an exordium to defeat. It is not the defeated soldier’s drumbeat of despair, but the fighting warrior’s will to win. It is not the dispirited voice of dejection but the stirring shout of victory.” Some of his poems like Kadam milakar chalna hoga and Door kahin koi rota hai were sung by the late Ghazal maestro Jagjit Singh.

Another very motivating and a very popular poem of his which he wrote to motivate millions of Swayamsevaks of the RSS. It became a ritual to recite this poem in every Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh meet.

कोटि चरण बढ़ रहे ध्येय की ओर निरन्तर

यह परम्परा का प्रवाह है, कभी न खण्डित होगा। पुत्रों के बल पर ही मां का मस्तक मण्डित होगा।

वह कपूत है जिसके रहते मां की दीन दशा हो। शत भाई का घर उजाड़ता जिसका महल बसा हो।

घर का दीपक व्यर्थ, मातृ-मंदिर में जब अंधियारा। कैसा हास-विलास कि जब तक बना हुआ बंटवारा?

किस बेटे ने मां के टुकड़े करके दीप जलाए? किसने भाई की समाधि पर ऊंचे महल बनाए?

सबल भुजाओं में रक्षित है नौका की पतवार। चीर चलें सागर की छाती, पार करें मंझधार।

…ज्ञान-केतु लेकर निकला है विजयी शंकर। अब न चलेगा ढोंग, दम्भ, मिथ्या आडम्बर।

अब न चलेगा राष्ट्र प्रेम का गर्हित सौदा। यह अभिनव चाणक्य न फलने देगा विष का पौधा।

तन की शक्ति, हृदय की श्रद्धा, आत्म-तेज की धारा। आज जगेगा जग-जननी का सोया भाग्य सितारा।

कोटि पुष्प चढ़ रहे देव के शुभ चरणों पर। कोटि चरण बढ़ रहे ध्येय की ओर निरन्तर।

Another poem which I wish to share here is on Pakistan. When I heard about the brutal massacre of school children in Peshawar, Pakistan last week, I was reminded of this.

Here it is in his own voice.

हमें मिटाने वालों से कह दो , चिंगारी का खेल बुरा होता है,
औरों के घर आग लगाने का सपना, वह अपने ही घर सदा खरा होता है !

Bharata Ratna Atal Bihari Vajpayee

Atalji is a bachelor who turned 90 today. He loves hindi cinema music and his favorite singers are Lata Mangeshkar, Mukesh and Mohammed Rafi. 

Vajpayee suffered a stroke in 2009, which silenced the great orator. He now remains confined to his bed or wheelchair in his Krishna Menon Marg bungalow, where he lives with his adopted daughter Namita. He also suffers from dementia and often fails to recognize people. Unlike the old days, few visit him these days. LK Advani, former Uttarakhand CM BC Khanduri are prominent among the most frequent visitors.

The political life of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, spanning across seven decades has numerous exemplary accomplishments and statesmanship. As much as you write about him, it seems less.

On a personal note, I thank the Narendra Modi government for conferring Bharat Ratna, the nation’s highest civilian award on Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a most deserved honour to a person who gave so much to the nation and propelled it on an entirely new trajectory.