Atal Bihari Vajpayee (25 December 1924 – 16 August 2018) was an Indian statesman who served three terms as the Prime Minister of India, first for a term of 13 days in 1996, then for a period of 13 months from 1998 to 1999, followed by a full term from 1999 to 2004. A member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), he was the first Indian prime minister not of the Indian National Congress to serve a full term in office. He was also noted as a poet and a writer.
He was a member of the Indian Parliament for over five decades, having been elected ten times to the Lok Sabha, the lower house, and twice to the Rajya Sabha, the upper house. He served as the Member of Parliament for Lucknow, retiring from active politics in 2009 due to health concerns. He was among the founding members of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), of which he was president from 1968 to 1972. The BJS merged with several other parties to form the Janata Party, which won the 1977 general election. In March 1977, Vajpayee became the Minister of External Affairs in the cabinet of Prime Minister Morarji Desai. He resigned in 1979, and the Janata alliance collapsed soon after. Former members of the BJS formed the BJP in 1980, with Vajpayee its first president.
During his tenure as prime minister, India carried out the Pokhran-II nuclear tests in 1998. Vajpayee sought to improve diplomatic relations with Pakistan, travelling to Lahore by bus to meet with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. After the 1999 Kargil War with Pakistan, he sought to restore relations through engagement with President Pervez Musharraf, inviting him to India for a summit at Agra.
The administration of Narendra Modi declared in 2014 that Vajpayee’s birthday, 25 December, would be marked as Good Governance Day. In 2015, he was conferred India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, by the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee. He died on 16 August 2018 of age-related illness.
Early life and education
Vajpayee was born into a Hindu Brahmin family on 25 December 1924 in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh. His mother and father were Krishna Devi and Krishna Bihari Vajpayee. His father was a school teacher in their home town. His grandfather, Shyam Lal Vajpayee, had migrated to Morena near Gwalior from his ancestral village of Bateshwar in the Agra district of Uttar Pradesh.
Vajpayee did his schooling at the Saraswati Shishu Mandir in Gwalior. In 1934, he was admitted to the Anglo-Vernacular Middle (AVM) School in Barnagar, Ujjain district, after his father joined as headmaster. He subsequently attended Gwalior’s Victoria College (now Maharani Laxmi Bai Govt. College of Excellence) to study for a BA in Hindi, English and Sanskrit. He completed his post-graduation with an MA in Political Science from DAV College, Kanpur.
Terms as Prime Minister (1996–2004)
First term: May 1996
During a BJP conference in Mumbai in November 1995, BJP President Advani declared that Vajpayee would be the party’s Prime Ministerial candidate in the forthcoming elections. Vajpayee himself was reported to be unhappy with the announcement, responding by saying that the party needed to win the election first. The BJP became the single largest party in Parliament in the 1996 general election, helped by religious polarisation across the country as a result of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Indian president Shankar Dayal Sharma invited Vajpayee to form the government. Vajpayee was sworn in as the 10th Prime Minister of India, but the BJP failed to muster a majority among members of the Lok Sabha. Vajpayee resigned after 16 days, when it became clear that he did not have enough support to form a government.
Second term: 1998–1999
After the fall of the two United Front governments between 1996 and 1998, the Lok Sabha was dissolved and fresh elections were held. The 1998 general elections again put the BJP ahead of others. A number of political parties joined the BJP to form the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and Vajpayee was sworn in as the Prime Minister. The coalition was an uneasy one, as apart from the Shiv Sena, none of the other parties espoused the BJP’s Hindu-nationalist ideology. Vajpayee has been credited for managing this coalition successfully, while facing ideological pressure from the hardline wing of the party and from the RSS. Vajpayee’s government lasted 13 months until mid-1999 when the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) under J. Jayalalithaa withdrew its support. The government lost the ensuing vote of confidence motion in the Lok Sabha by a single vote on 17 April 1999. As the opposition was unable to come up with the numbers to form the new government, the Lok Sabha was again dissolved and fresh elections were held.
Third term: 1999–2004
The 1999 general elections were held in the aftermath of the Kargil operations. The BJP-led NDA won 303 seats out of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, securing a comfortable and stable majority. On 13 October 1999, Vajpayee took oath as Prime Minister of India for the third time.
A national crisis emerged in December 1999, when Indian Airlines flight IC 814 from Kathmandu to New Delhi was hijacked by five terrorists and flown to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The hijackers made several demands including the release of certain terrorists like Masood Azhar from prison. Under pressure, the government ultimately caved in. Jaswant Singh, the Minister of External Affairs at the time, flew with the terrorists to Afghanistan and exchanged them for the passengers.
In March 2000, Bill Clinton, the President of the United States, paid a state visit to India. This was the first state visit to India by a U.S. president in 22 years, since President Jimmy Carter’s visit in 1978. President Clinton’s visit was hailed as a significant milestone in relations between the two nations. Vajpayee and Clinton had wide-ranging discussions on bilateral, regional and international developments. The visit led to expansion in trade and economic ties between India and the United States. A vision document on the future course of Indo-U.S. relations was signed during the visit.
Domestically, the BJP-led government was influenced by the RSS, 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 Vajpayee’s 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” the official state education curriculum and apparatus, saffron being the colour of the RSS flag of the RSS, and a symbol of the Hindu nationalism movement. 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.
These years 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 intense pressure upon his legs.
In March 2001, the Tehelka group released a sting operation video named Operation West End which showed 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 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 initiated talks with Pakistan, and invited Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf to Agra for a joint summit. President Musharraf was believed to be the principal architect of the Kargil War in India. By accepting him as the President of Pakistan, Vajpayee chose to move forward leaving behind the Kargil War. 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.
|1951||Founding-Member||Bharatiya Jana Sangh||Bharatiya Jana Sangh|
|1957-62||MP, Balrampur (Lok Sabha constituency)||2nd Lok Sabha||Bharatiya Jana Sangh||1st Term|
|1957-77||Leader||Bharatiya Jana Sangh Parliamentary Party||Bharatiya Jana Sangh|
|1962-68||MP, Uttar Pradesh, Rajya Sabha||Rajya Sabha||Bharatiya Jana Sangh||1st Term (Resigned on 25 February 1967) Elected to Lok Sabha|
|1966-67||Chairman||Committee on Government Assurances||Rajya Sabha|
|1967||MP, Balrampur (Lok Sabha constituency)||4th Lok Sabha||Bharatiya Jana Sangh||2nd Term|
|1967-70||Chairman,||Public Accounts Committee||Bharatiya Jana Sangh|
|1968-73||President||Bharatiya Jana Sangh||Bharatiya Jana Sangh|
|1971||MP, Gwalior (Lok Sabha constituency)||5th Lok Sabha||Bharatiya Jana Sangh||3rd Term|
|1977||MP, New Delhi (Lok Sabha constituency)||6th Lok Sabha (4th term)||Janata Party||(4th term)|
|1977-79||Union Cabinet Minister,||External Affairs||Janata Party|
|1977-80||Founding Member||Janata Party||Janata Party|
|1980||MP, New Delhi (Lok Sabha constituency)||7th Lok Sabha||Bharatiya Janata Party||(5th term)|
|1980-86||President,||Bharatiya Janata Party||Bharatiya Janata Party|
|1980-84, 1986 and 1993–96||Leader||Parliamentary Party||Bharatiya Janata Party|
|1986||MP, Madhya Pradesh, Rajya Sabha||Rajya Sabha||Bharatiya Janata Party||2nd Term|
|1988-89||Member,||General Purposes Committee||Rajya Sabha|
Member, Business Advisory Committee
|1990-91||Chairman,||Committee on Petitions||Rajya Sabha|
|1991||MP, Lucknow (Lok Sabha constituency)||10th Lok Sabha||Bharatiya Janata Party||(6th term)|
|1991-93||Chairman,||Public Accounts Committee||Lok Sabha|
|1993-96||Chairman,||Committee on External Affairs||Lok Sabha|
|1993-96||Leader of Opposition,||Lok Sabha||Bharatiya Janata Party|
|1996||MP, Lucknow (Lok Sabha constituency)||11th Lok Sabha||Bharatiya Janata Party||7th Term|
|16 May 1996- 31 May 1996||Prime Minister of India; and in charge of other subjects not allocated to any other Cabinet Minister||Bharatiya Janata Party||Bharatiya Janata Party|
|1996-97||Leader of Opposition,||Lok Sabha||Bharatiya Janata Party|
|1997-98||Chairman,||Committee on External Affairs||Lok Sabha|
|1998||MP, Lucknow (Lok Sabha constituency)||12th Lok Sabha||Bharatiya Janata Party||8th Term|
|1998-99||Prime Minister of India; Minister of External Affairs; and also incharge of Ministries/Departments not specifically allocated to the charge of any Minister||Bharatiya Janata Party||Bharatiya Janata Party|
|1999||MP, Lucknow (Lok Sabha constituency)||13th Lok Sabha||Bharatiya Janata Party||9th Term|
|1999||Leader,||Parliamentary Party, Lok Sabha||Bharatiya Janata Party|
|13 Oct.1999- May 2004||Prime Minister of India and also in charge of the Ministries/Departments not specifically allocated to the charge of any Minister||Bharatiya Janata Party||Bharatiya Janata Party|
|2004||MP, Lucknow (Lok Sabha constituency)||14th Lok Sabha||Bharatiya Janata Party||10th Term|
|2004||Chairman,||Parliamentary Party||Bharatiya Janata Party &|
Vajpayee remained a bachelor for his entire life. He adopted and raised Namita Bhattacharya as his own child, the daughter of longtime friend Rajkumari Kaul and her husband Professor B N Kaul. His adopted family lived with him.
Unlike purist Brahmins who shun meat and alcohol, Vajpayee was known to be fond of whisky and meat. He was a noted poet, writing in Hindi. His published works include Kaidi Kaviraj Ki Kundalian, a collection of poems written when he was imprisoned during the 1975–77 emergency, and Amar aag hai. With regard to his poetry he wrote, “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 despirited voice of dejection but the stirring shout of victory.”
Vajpayee suffered a stroke in 2009 which impaired his speech. His health had been a major source of concern; reports said he was confined to a wheelchair and failed to recognise people. He also suffered from dementia and long-term diabetes. For many years, he had not attended any public engagements and rarely ventured out of the house, except for checkups at the All India Institutes of Medical Sciences.
On 11 June 2018, Vajpayee was admitted to AIIMS in critical condition following a kidney infection. He was officially declared dead there at 5:05 pm IST on 16 August 2018 at the age of 93. Some sources claim that he had died on the previous day. On the morning of 17 August, Vajpayee’s body, draped with the Indian flag, was taken to the Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters where party workers paid their tributes until 1 pm. Later that afternoon at 4 pm, Vajpayee was cremated with full state honours at Rashtriya Smriti Sthal near Raj Ghat, and his pyre was lit by his foster daughter Namita Kaul Bhattacharya. Thousands of people and many dignitaries attended his funeral procession, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Ram Nath Kovind. On 19 August, his ashes were immersed in Ganga river at Haridwar by Kaul.
- Recipient of the Bangladesh Liberation War Honour(2016)
- Grand Cordon of the Order of Ouissam Alaouite(13 February 1999)
- In 2012, Vajpayee was ranked number 9 in Outlookmagazine’s poll of The Greatest Indian.
- In August 2018, Naya Raipur was renamed as Atal Nagar.
- In October 2018, four Himalayan peaks near Gangotri glacier named after his name.
- 1992, Padma Vibhushan
- 1993, Lit.from Kanpur University
- 1994, Lokmanya Tilak Award
- 1994, Outstanding Parliamentarian Award
- 1994, Bharat Ratna Pandit Govind Vallabh Pant Award
- 2015, Bharat Ratna
- 2015, Bangladesh Liberation War Honour(Bangladesh Muktijuddho Sanmanona)
Vajpayee authored several works of both prose and poetry. Some of his major publications are listed below. In addition to these, various collections were made of his speeches, articles, and slogans.
- National Integration(1961)
- New Dimensions of India’s Foreign Policy(1979)
- Gathbandhan Ki Rajneeti
- Kucha Lekha, Kucha Bhashana(1996)
- Bindu-Bindu Vicara(1997)
- Decisive Days(1999)
- Vicara-Bindu(Hindi Edition, 2000)
- India’s Perspectives on ASEAN and the Asia-Pacific Region(2003)
- Na Dainyam Na Palayanam
- Nayi Chunouti : Naya Avasar
- Kaidi Kaviraj Ki Kundalian
- Amar Aag Hai(1994)
- Meri Ikyavana Kavitaem(1995). Some of these poems were set to music by Jagjit Singh for his album Samvedna.
- Kya Khoya Kya Paya: Atal Bihari Vajapeyi, Vyaktitva Aur Kavitaem(1999)
- Values, Vision & Verses of Vajpayee: India’s Man of Destiny(2001)
- Twenty-One Poems(2003)
- Chuni Hui Kavitayein(2012)
An English translation of a selection of some of Vajpayee’s Hindi poetry was published in 2013.