Atal Bihari Vajpayee
Why you should read this book
If you want to learn more about Atalji, the Parliament, and politics, you should read this book. Atalji is an inspiration to set aside political rivalry and differences in ideology to make tangible reforms and developments. He dedicated most of his life to the progress of India. He has set a good example for all leaders and politicians of the world.
Who should read this
Young politicians; Government workers; Lobbyists; College Students;
About the author
Kingshuk Nag is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a writer and editor in several newspapers such as the Times of India. He is the recipient of the Prem Bhatia Award for Outstanding Political Reporting in 2002.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee: A Man for All Seasons
One man led the construction of the Golden Quadrilateral. One man pushed through successful nuclear tests and did the historical crossover to Pakistan. One man took the country towards liberalization and economic growth. That one man was Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In this book, you will learn how Atal Bihari Vajpayee served the nation for five decades. You will learn about his character and how he had maintained his good reputation throughout the years. Atal Bihari Vajpayee is an inspiration. He has set a good example not only for his fellow Indians but for all citizens of the world.
The Formative Years
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was born on Christmas day in 1924. His family belonged to the Brahmin caste. He was born and raised in the princely state of Gwalior. It was under the rule of British India. Krishna Bihari, Atal’s father, was a schoolteacher. He got promoted to the headmaster and then he served as an inspector of schools. Krishna influenced Atal with his love of reading and education. In 1942, the Quit India movement spread all over the country. Protests and demonstrations were held even in Gwalior. Krishna Bihari sensed that his sons, Atal and Prem, were getting interested in the revolution. That was why he decided to send them to Bateshwar.
Soon, even Bateshwar was involved in the struggle as well. One day, there became a demonstration in the village market. Atal and Prem were there. The crowd leader Liladhar Bajpai was making a powerful speech. He encouraged the people to demolish government offices and raise the Indian flag. Liladhar was a good speaker. He was able to move plenty of people. Atal and Prem went with the crowd, but they didn’t join in with the demolition itself. They didn’t join as Liladhar and the others burned buildings while shouting “Quit India!”
It was not long before the authorities arrived at the scene. The police arrested many people including Liladhar, Atal, and Prem. The brothers stayed in jail for 23 days. Krishna Bihari became very worried when he learned of what happened to his sons. He did everything he could to bring them back. Meanwhile, Atal and Prem were interrogated separately. They gave two identical statements. Yes, they were with the crowd, but they didn’t participate in the demolition.
The crowd leader, Liladhar, was found guilty and imprisoned for 3 years. The brothers, Atal and Prem, were eventually let go. That incident became an eye opener for the future prime minister. At the time of the arrest, Atal was a student at the Victoria College of Gwalior. He was taking up a Bachelor of Arts degree where he studied English, Hindi, and Sanskrit. After that, Atal chose to pursue a Master’s degree in Kanpur.
He was able to secure a government scholarship for his master’s degree in political science. Atal graduated with honors. While he was studying, he became affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS organization. The experience shaped Atal for political leadership.
Getting Into Politics
Deen Dayal Upadhyaya was a great influence in Atal’s early political career. Both Deen Dayal and Atal were from the Brahmin caste of North India. Both of them were members of RSS. Deen was very impressed by Atal’s work as editor of the RSS newspapers. Another big influence was Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, who was the founder of the Jana Sangh. The RSS was a major supporter of the new political party. Coincidentally, Deen Dayal introduced Atal to Shyama Prasad. Deen Dayal saw Atal as a smart energetic youth who could be an asset to the Jana Sangh.
Atal became an assistant to Shyama Prasad. He was there when Shyama Prasad worked on the controversial issue of Kashmir. Atal gave the impression of a young political activist full of idealism. Shyama Prasad did not have the permit to go to Kashmir yet and he was determined to do so. Atal and three of his staff went with him on the train until Pathankot. Shyama Prasad thought that the Punjab government would stop and arrest him. Thankfully, he was let through.
Little did he know that there was a conspiracy. Shyama Prasad would be allowed to enter Kashmir, but he would not be allowed to leave. He died while in Kashmir detention. That tragedy was a big blow to the Jana Sangh. It weakened the power of the opposing party. There became a vacancy in the Lok Sabha position of Jana Sangh. Deen Dayal endorsed Atal as a candidate even though Atal was only 28 years old. Deen Dayal believed that Atal learned a lot from Shyama Prasad. He also believed in Atal’s talent for public speaking.
Then Atal ran for the elections. However, Jana Sangh was not very popular then. Atal tried hard for quite some time. It was only in 1957 when Jana Sangh was able to win 4 seats in the Parliament. One of them was held by Atal. He was only given 5 minutes to speak in the parliament sessions. Because of that, Atal’s skill in public speaking further improved. He was able to communicate his messages in a clear organized way.
Even Jawaharlal Nehru thought highly of him. On one occasion, Nehru brought Atal forward to meet the British prime minister. Pandit Nehru said, “This young man is the leader of the opposition. He always criticizes me. But I can see that he has a great future ahead of him.”
Leading the Jana Sangh
Another tragedy happened in the Jana Sangh. Deen Dayal was elected as the president of Jana Sangh in 1967. However, he only held the position for 40 days. Deen Dayal had a mysterious death. He was aboard a running train when somebody pushed him out. It had fallen to the hands of M.S. Golwalkar, the leader of RSS, to choose the new president of Jana Sangh. There was Balraj Madhok, the former president, who was lobbying hard for the position, but Golwalkar saw Atal as a far better candidate.
When Atal learned of his nomination as Jana Sangh president, he was shocked. “How can I take Deen Dayal’s position?” He thought to himself. Nevertheless, Atal took full responsibility. His abilities as a good leader shined through. Atal built a competent team to help him. Although the appointment was done, Madhok still held a grudge against Atal. He opposed Atal every opportunity he got. However, Madhok failed to weaken Atal. He was always angry while Atal was just a cool cat.
Madhok tended to be extreme in his views while Atal weighed everything carefully. Atal saw it best to be on the middle ground and to see the good points of every side. For example, Madhok expressed extreme opinions about Muslim issues. Atal would never do that. Atal had always been in favor of tactical alliances. In several instances, he had partnered with other opposition parties to achieve the same goal. Atal once said that political instability could not be avoided. The only remedy that parties could have was coalition politics.
Meanwhile, Atal also had Indira Gandhi to deal with. For instance, the two famous politicians disagreed on the issue of junior doctors in Delhi. The doctors were demanding a salary of ₹500 with a separate non-practicing allowance. Indira and Atal debated over it in Parliament. Indira Gandhi said, “How come the poorest are not complaining? They do not resort to hunger strikes and non-cooperation. Those who are complaining are the people who are better off. I am surprised. I cannot understand.”
To which Atal replied, “Is there any special effort needed to understand this? The poor people have no voice. They have been unorganized and suppressed for years. On the other hand, people who are better off are educated. They know how to represent themselves.”More clashes happened between Indira and Atal. In 1970, Indira accused Jana Sangh of being anti-Muslim because of its Indianization program. Indira declared that she could deal with the Jana Sangh group in just five minutes.
Atal found this ridiculous. He said, “PM Indira says she can deal with us in just five minutes. How can she do that when she cannot even deal with her hair? When Nehruji is angry at us, he would at least make a good speech. The Jana Sangh teases him for it. But we cannot do that with Indira. She gets angry on her own.”Atal further explained that Indira did not understand Indianization. BJP was promoting secularization which meant civilly dealing with issues and not being influenced by religion. Indianization did not only involve Muslims and Hindus but the whole Indian population. “Indianization aims for national awakening.” Atal Vajpayee said.
Love, Life, and Poetry
Atal Vajpayee never married. A controversy spread about his personal life. There was a woman by the name of Mrs. Rajkumari Kaul who always picked up Atal’s home telephone. There was one journalist who talked about his experience. Girish Nikam recalled that whenever he called Atal’s home, it was Mrs. Kaul who answered. Mrs. Kaul gently explained that she, her husband, and Vajpayee had been very good friends for over 40 years. The three of them had decided to share the same residence.
In an interview for a woman’s magazine, Mrs. Kaul answered that Atal and Mr. Kaul didn’t mind the dirty rumors. Her relationship with Mr. Kaul was very strong. There was a beautiful story that unfolded in Victoria College, Gwalior. Vajpayee and Mrs. Kaul were classmates and best friends. It was the 1940s, and friendship between boys and girls was strictly prohibited. During those years, emotions of love were often hidden.
Rajkumari Kaul confided to a friend that Atal had left a letter for her in the school library. He kept it inside one of the books. Rajkumari had read it and she wrote a reply. However, Atal was not able to see her letter. As the years passed, Rajkumari was married to a young teacher named Brij Narain Kaul. Rajkumari had dreamt once to marry Atal, but her father disapproved. The Kaul family belonged to the Brahmin caste. But they consider themselves to be of a higher breed.
Atal went on with his life and became a respected politician. When Mr. Kaul and Mrs. Kaul moved into Delhi, the three of them reunited. They forged a lifetime friendship.
The Man and His Style
Many people became witnesses to Atal’s good character. One of them was his former aide. He remembered Atal to have a deep dedication to the Parliament. When he was already a prime minister, Atal would often drop by the sessions of the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha. Especially when Atal heard the quorum bell, which signaled that there were several absentees, Atal would personally check on the MPs. According to his former aide, Atal took his responsibility as a lawmaker very seriously. He did extensive research for every speech that he delivered. Atal wrote down all his ideas and arguments.
Because of his hard work and passion, Atal was awarded outstanding parliamentarian in 1984. Only a few men were awarded this honor. The other awardees include Indrajit Gupta and Jaipal Reddy. Indeed, Atal’s first love was the Parliament. The former aide also added that Atal never raised his voice. He always thought before he spoke, and he had control over his emotions. Atal spoke in refined Hindi even when he was very angry. Atal Vajpayee was a public figure, but he had a very private personal life. He liked to spend time with his family and his friends. Atal was a warm and friendly person. He always had friends who would visit him. His friends came from different walks of life.
Even when Atal was busy, he took time to meet those who visited him. He accommodated them even if they did not set an appointment.
“Now what do I do? These friends of mine have taken the trouble to come. I should meet them.” Atal would say. The poet Surendra Sharma shared his experience. He said that he came to Atal’s office without an appointment. Atal was talking with Minister Rajnath Singh at the time. Nevertheless, Surendra was welcomed and ushered into the room. Atal, Rajnath, and Surendra had a worthwhile conversation.
Janata Raj and the BJP
When PM Moraiji Desai and Janata Sangh came to power, Atal Vajpayee was assigned as the foreign affairs minister. Atal had been interested in India’s relationship with other countries since he started his career. He made sure that India had a good relationship with as many countries as possible. Atal was inspired by Jawaharlal Nehru who also served as a foreign affairs minister. He didn’t make radical changes in his term. He saw to it that India was open to friendship with all countries. He made sure that the foreign policies were against racism or colonialism in any form.
Atal was a promoter of cultural and religious tolerance. India was a country of diversity and so the good relationship of all people must be maintained. Atal applied the same principle in his foreign policies. India had a special relationship with Russia. Vladimir Putin’s country had been supplying military equipment to India. Russia had also contributed to India’s industrial and economic growth.
What Atal did was maintain that good relationship with Russia, but he also pushed for India to have special relationships with other countries. Atal secured India’s friendship with the United States, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Romania, and others. Atal targeted to strengthen India’s friendship with China. This was because, like Pakistan, China was a neighboring country with a history of war with India. Atal visited China in 1979. However, he was offended. This was because while Atal was on his official visit, Deng Xiao Ping ordered the invasion of Vietnam.
When criticized for always being out of the country, Atal explained, “I cannot deny that I’m always abroad. But please give me another chance.”Atal also secured friendship with Israel. Even though PM Desai said that India would have no ties with Israel until it had let go of the Arab nations. Atal restated his middle ground position. Even though he wanted good relations with Israel, Atal declared that India remained firm on its position that Israel must vacate the Arab nations, and also give back the land of the Palestine people.
Meanwhile, back at home, the Janata party to which Atal Vajpayee belonged to suffered from conflict. The right-wing Hindu ideology of Indira Gandhi, PM Moraiji Desai, and MP Charan Singh was dividing the Janata Party into factions. Atal and some of his colleagues wanted to do away with right-wing Hindu ideology. They wanted a more liberal party that was all-embracing and diverse. They wanted to push forward for Gandhian socialism, which aimed for more opportunities to lower castes and poor people.
The Bhartiya Janata Party was formed. Atal, his long-time friend LK Advani, and the others founded BJP in 1980. Its name was derived from Janata Sangh, but the BJP Party had a very different image. Atal Vajpayee became BJP’s first leader. He recruited the likes of the Muslim minister Sikander Bakht and the former Supreme Court judge, Justice KS Hedge.
The BJP pursued a new kind of politics that was not after parliament seats and confrontation. BJP supported neither communism nor capitalism. Atal’s new party wanted to promote positive secularism which meant that BJP weighed issues based on morality and not religion.
Witness to Ayodhya
The BJP party, under the leadership of LK Advani, resurfaced the issue of the Ayodhya dispute. Hindus believe that the deity Rama was born on a specific site in Ayodhya. A Hindu temple used to be there in honor of Rama. But in 1528, the Babri Masjid mosque was built on the same site. It seemed that the BJP party brought the issue up to gain votes from the Hindu population. At the time, Atal Vajpayee was occupied with parliament affairs. He was in Delhi when the tragedy in Ayodhya happened.
Many Muslims died in the riot on December 6, 1992. The Babri Masjid mosque was completely demolished. Earlier in the day, LK Advani and other BJP members were there. They had to leave because of the increasing tension from the crowd. Atal expressed his sadness over what happened. He said that the dispute should have been settled at the local level. It should not have ended in a disaster. The Ayodhya temple issue could have been handled like the Somnath temple issue.
The Somnath temple was rebuilt in 1951. The mosque which previously occupied the space was relocated. No violence and no riots ensued. If only the Ayodhya Ram temple was rebuilt at the height of the issue, the tragedy would not have happened. Lives would not have been wasted and the Babri Masjid would still exist today.
Post Ayodhya to Prime Minister
The Babri Masjid demolition also sparked riots in Mumbai, Bhopal, Surat, and other places. Thousands died because of the same dispute. The whole Ayodhya disaster became a big blow to the BJP and LK Advani. Both the BJP and Advani became unpopular with the people. The favor went to Atal who was more moderate and agreeable than Advani. The unfortunate event of Ayodhya became a turning point in Atal Vajpayee’s political career.
What further secured Atal’s position was the scandal faced by Advani. The issue is popularly known as the Jain diaries. It was said that many top politicians had accepted bribes from businessmen from 1987 to 1991. One businessman named SK Jain had recorded all the transactions in his diary. Advani was one of the accused.
The Central Bureau of Investigation and Supreme Court handled the case. Even before there was a verdict, Advani passed the BJP leadership to Atal. In the annual meeting of the BJP in 1995, Advani stood up and announced that the BJP prime minister candidate was Atal Vajpayee. There was a moment of silence and then the people shouted “Agli baari Atal Bihari!”
Because of Atal’s gentle demeanor, many people liked him. He was very careful of his words so that he wouldn’t offend anyone. When giving his opinions, Atal remained moderate. He never wanted to position himself in the extreme. Atal had maintained a positive image throughout his political career. The change in leadership of the BJP gave the party new hope. The other parties and politicians as well as the general public were optimistic about Atal.
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee won the elections in 1996. He only remained in position for 13 days. He was the first ever PM from the BJP. Atal immediately felt the strong opposition. The Indian National Congress and the left-wing joined forces to make the BJP lose power. To which Atal declared in his speech, “This is not healthy politics.”He had another failed term in 1998. It was only in 1999 that Prime Minister Vajpayee was able to secure his position. He was able to serve for a full term from 1999 to 2004. He was the first PM, who was not from the Indian National Congress, to complete the 5-year term.
One of the first things that Atal Bihari Vajpayee did as a prime minister was conduct nuclear tests. Indians had been wanting this to happen for the past two administrations. It was PM Atal who finally did it. He marked the occasion as the “rise of a strong self-confident India”.The tests were done in the small desert town of Pokhran. PM Atal, the scientists, and the military were careful not to alert the satellite Americans. All in all, the nuclear tests were held successfully on May 11-13, 1998.PM Atal only revealed the operation directly after in a press conference.
The nuclear tests gained positive reactions from the Indian population. It even caused the rise of stock market prices. The United States however was not very happy. The Americans cut off their military aide. France and Russia were neutral, and China was furious. The Chinese government demanded India stop developing nuclear weapons.
On May 28, Pakistan also did its nuclear tests. It was conducted at Chagatai Hills. To which U.S. President Clinton reacted, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, the former leader of Jana Sangh and mentor of Atal, suggested the confederation of Pakistan and India. This was disapproved greatly by the extreme right-wing Hindu groups. Deen Dayal saw the many advantages of bilateral relations. India and Pakistan could support each other in the issues faced by the South Asian region. Atal saw that since both Pakistan and India had successful nuclear tests, it was about time to establish good relations.
The prime minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif also thought the same. He officially invited PM Atal to Pakistan. On February 19, 1999, Atal did the historical crossover. He rode a bus through the Punjab border. Atal brought with him 22 distinguished personalities. There were his colleagues, some journalists, and celebrities like Dev Anand, Javed Akhtar as well as Mallika Sarabhai. The bus they rode in became a local celebrity too. The bus service permitted families from each side of the border to reunite.
As soon as Atal Vajpayee reached Pakistan, he was welcomed by Nawaz Sharif. Hundreds of people were there to witness the historical cross-over. As Atal said, “This is a defining moment in the history of South Asia. We are all here to rise to the challenge.”He and Sharif agreed on the Lahore declaration, which states, that India and Pakistan will have peaceful resolutions to disputes like Kashmir.
The two countries will, from then on, engage in friendly cultural, commercial, and military exchange. India and Pakistan will reduce the risk of nuclear war. Aside from meeting with Sharif, Atal also came to Minar-e-Pakistan. It was a monument built in 1947 to commemorate the birth of the country. Some people advised Atal not to do so as it would give the impression that he approved the conception of Pakistan.
PM Atal had this to say, “I saw no logic in this stamp of approval. Pakistan does not need my approval to exist. Pakistan has a life of its own.”
Revving up the Economy
PM Atal pushed for the liberalization of the Indian economy. Overall, his efforts proved to be very successful. First, he privatized Hindustan Petroleum and Bharat Petroleum. Both big oil companies used to be run by the government. Atal also privatized the international telephone company, Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited. He also created the new government-owned, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited. Privatization meant that the companies owned by the government would be sold to private corporations.
From 2000-2002, 13 hotels and 12 other companies owned by the government were sold off. These include Modern Food Industries, Bharat Aluminium Co, Hindustan Zinc, Hindustan Teleprinters, and Computer Maintenance Co. Several hotels of the Indian Tourism Development were also privatized.
What is the logic behind these privatizations? PM Atal wanted the petroleum, food, tourism, mining, technology, and other sectors to grow exponentially. It was at a rate that could only be achieved by the leading corporations and expert entrepreneurs. These privatized companies would no longer be limited by the bureaucracy in terms of growth. Arvind Panagariya, an economist from Columbia University, wrote about it in the Times of India.
He said that the high growth of the Indian economy in the UPA government was largely due to the reforms done by PM Atal. The economic growth rate was at 8% in the last year of Atal’s term. It remained that way even in the 10 years that followed. There were also low interest and low inflation rates in Atal’s administration. The project on which Atal Bihari Vajpayee can be remembered the most was the Golden Quadrilateral Programme. PM Atal saw that investment in infrastructure would ultimately bring high economic growth.
It was a well-conceived and well-executed program completed in 2012. The four corners of India were finally connected. A highway network now connects Chennai, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Delhi. The big roads run through Bengaluru, Surat, Kanpur, and other major cities. The Golden Quadrilateral program not only ensured India’s economic growth. It has also improved both the industrial and agricultural sectors. It has also nourished the nation’s diverse culture. India is united geographically now more than ever. None other than Atal Bihari Vajpayee turned this great ambition into a reality.
By the end of Atal’s five-year term, he was already over 80 years old. He was a veteran statesman who had ridden through the ups and downs of the government. Atal Vajpayee was rushed to the hospital in February 2009 because of a fever and chest infection. His condition worsened and he suffered a stroke. The former prime minister gave his blessing to the new BJP candidate through a letter. His health had not permitted him to actively engage in more politics. Atal Vajpayee had to stay at home in his wheelchair.
His speech was impaired by the stroke. Later on, Atal also developed dementia. Diabetes had also weakened his body. He failed to recognize people and developed eating problems. Nevertheless, his colleagues and close friends often visited him. The Bharat Ratna was bestowed on Atal Bihari Vajpayee on his last birthday. It was a highly prestigious award given to Indians who did great service to the country. The ceremony was attended by his many supporters. There is deep admiration and respect for this man who had served his country all his life.
A Statesman Par Excellence
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was more than a politician. He was indeed an excellent statesman. He was one of the few leaders who were able to disregard politics in service of the people. Atal had the amazing ability of building consensus with people from different backgrounds and ideologies. When he first came to Delhi, he was only 25 years old. The Indian Republic had just begun, and the Constitution was just being drafted. Atal entered the Parliament as a young man. All these circumstances allowed him to see the nation with a bird’s eye view.
The Parliament used to be like the solar system. The Indian National Congress was like the sun with all the other parties like planets revolving around it. The BJP, the Jana Sangh, the Swatantra, the communist, and the socialist parties had lesser power. But Atal Bihari Vajpayee took the BJP to a whole new level. In a sense, he has made a new sun out of his political party. The people of India saw an alternative to the Indian National Congress. Atal Vajpayee and the BJP gave the Indians more choices and a more open-minded view. Atal’s concept of service over politics and consensus building is something that all lawmakers from all political parties can learn from.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee had remained in the middle ground because he didn’t want to offend anyone. He wanted to maintain a good relationship with all castes and religions. He accepted all people and cared for the welfare of all.PM Atal pushed for positive secularization and Gandhian socialism because he believed that all people must have equal rights and opportunities.
He had fared through intense politics in the parliament. He had risen above it all to deliver good service to the people, which is the true duty of politicians. Because of his gentle and friendly character, he was loved by all. He is truly a great person to be remembered. Atal Bihari Vajpayee is one of the greatest leaders that India has ever had.