Atal Bihari Vajpayee

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Essential facts

Vajpayee sharing the stage with Narendra Modi in New Delhi in May 1998. Photograph by Bhawan Singh
Vajpayee with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf at the Agra summit in July 2001. Photograph by Dilip Banerjee
Vajpayee with L.K. Advani at a press conference in March 1991. Photograph by Sharad Saxena
Vajpayee addressing a rally in Kolkata in March 1997. Photograph by Bhaskar Paul
Vajpayee walking his dogs in January 1983. Photograph by Bhawan Singh
Vajpayee with Defence Minister George Fernandes and DRDO director

15 things one should know about Atal Bihari Vajpayee

The Times of India (With inputs from agencies)

1. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was born on December 25, 1924 in Gwalior.

2. As a teenager, Vajpayee was jailed briefly for opposing British colonial rule. He flirted with communism before choosing to support the Rashtriya Swamyam sevak Sangh (R.S.S.) and the Jan Sangh.

3. Vajpayee dropped out of law school to run an R.S.S. magazine in the early 1950s. Later, he transcended his political roots in the R.S.S. to emerge as the moderate voice of the BJP.

4. His involvement in politics began as a freedom-fighter during the Quit India Movement of 1942-1945. He started out as a communist but shed that for membership in the Rashtriya Swayam sevak Sangh (R.S.S.), an organization propounding Hindutva, or Hindu Nationalism and considered Right-Wing in Indian politics.

5. Vajpayee became a close follower and aide to Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), BJP's predecessor.

6. Vajpayee was at Mookerjee's side when he went on a fast-unto-death in Kashmir in 1953, to protest against the system of carrying a permit for entering the state and the "inferior" treatment of Indian citizens visiting Kashmir, as also the special treatment accorded to Kashmir because it had a Muslim majority. Mookerjee's fast and protest ended the identity card requirement, and hastened the integration of Kashmir into the Indian Union. But Mookherjee died after weeks of weakness, illness and confinement in jail. These events were a watershed moment for the young Vajpayee.

7. Taking the baton from Mookerjee, Vajpayee won his first election to Parliament in 1957.

8. Vajpayee served the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, for 10 terms that began in 1957 and concluded in 2009.

9. Vajpayee was the first head of government from outside the Congress party to serve a full five-year term.

10. Vajpayee first became Prime Minister in 1996 after four decades in opposition. He lasted only 13 days as prime minister for lack of numbers.

11. The lack of a stable majority ended his second stint in power from 1998 after 13 months. His government collapsed after AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa withdrew her support from the coalition.

12. Vajpayee was reelected in 1999 at the head of a more stable coalition that lasted its full term.

13. An orator par excellence, Vajpayee had earned much fame as India's external affairs minister in Prime Minister Morarji Desai government during which tenure he delivered a widely acclaimed speech to the United Nations General Assembly in Hindi.

14. Undeterred by party hawks who accused him of embarking on a misdirected visit to Pakistan in 1999, Vajpayee rode triumphantly into Lahore aboard a bus, on an initiative that was pursued by his successor Manmohan Singh.

15. A bachelor, Vajpayee is also a poet of some repute and he is often quoted by his party.

A life in history, briefly

Atal Bihari Vajpayee: a timeline
From: Swapan Dasgupta, August 17, 2018: The Times of India
Thus spake Atal Bihari Vajpayee
From: August 17, 2018: The Times of India

See graphics:

Atal Bihari Vajpayee: a timeline

Atal Bihari Vajpayee- some famous statements

A peek into the life Atal Bihari Vajpayee now leads

Akshaya Mukul,TNN | Mar 26, 2014 The Times of India

(This article was written when the UPA headed by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh was in power

A better part of Vajpayee's day is spent with physiotherapists, doctors and nurses.

2014 Less than a five-minute drive from the Ashoka Road headquarters of BJP, where the old guard is losing ground to the new, Atal Bihari Vajpayee sits quietly in a wheelchair in his SPG-guarded Krishna Menon Marg bungalow watching snatches of television and reading newspaper headlines.

The master orator, who was silenced by a stroke in 2009, cannot grasp either the small print or the big picture of what's happening within the party he nurtured. The three-time Prime Minister — last between 1999 and 2004 — bid adieu to active politics almost a decade ago. Now, as Modi — whom he'd wanted removed as Gujarat chief minister after the Godhra riots of 2002 — tightens his hold over BJP, some of his close friends and followers are feeling slighted or pushed to the wall.

Unlike the good old days, no one comes calling on him with complaints about the party or to listen to his poetry. The only regular visitors are N M Ghatate, Vajpayee's friend of nearly six decades, L K Advani and B C Khanduri (the general-turned-politician who was chief minister of Uttarakhand), who come to sit by his side or ask daughter Namita about his health.

Ghatate who visits him almost every week, sometimes even twice, says, "Prime Minister Manmohan Singh makes regular inquiries about his health and never misses wishing Vajpayeeji personally on his birthday." The two, Ghatate says, have an old association. Ghatate remembers how then PM PV Narasimha Rao called Vajpayee to complain that his finance minister Manmohan Singh had taken criticism of his budget by the opposition to heart and had offered to resign.

During a career spent mostly in opposition, Vajpayee had criticized everyone, from Nehru to his daughter Indira, but never realized it could hurt someone so much. Ghatate says Vajpayee immediately called Singh and told him not to take such comments to heart as they were meant to score political points. The Rao government was saved an embarrassment, and a new friendship was forged.

Ghatate says Vajpayee is still mentally alert. "But the stroke he suffered does not let him speak." Till then, he'd kept himself busy with books and writing. Within two months of the 2004 electoral defeat, he wrote a four-page article on the successful NDA coalition experiment and how even Congress had to fall in line; he argued that coalitions were here to stay.

A better part of Vajpayee's day, Ghatate says, is spent with physiotherapists, doctors and nurses. "I go there and just watch him or talk to family members. He understands everything but cannot have a conversation," he says. Vajpayee's favourite food — Chinese and prawns — is now served only in small portions.

Advani, who was deputy PM in the last NDA government, is reported to have wistfully told some people that Vajpayee would consult him on "everything". When asked if BJP leaders still asked him for advice, he is believed to have replied, cryptically, "When they need to."

For Ghatate, who first met him in the 1950s, the sight of the silent statesman is heart-rending. Vajpayee, who had known Ghatate's father, Babasaheb Ghatate, a senior Hindu Mahasabha leader, took the young law student under his wing in Delhi and treated him like a younger brother.

Of all the things that the protracted illness has taken away, Ghatate misses Vajpayee's sense of humour the most. When Ghatate gave him the news of the death of JN Dixit, Manmohan Singh's first national security advisor, Vajpayee said, "He was a good man. His problem was he used to work hard and worry a lot about the consequences." Ghatate pointed out Vajpayee's NSA and Dixit's predecessor Brajesh Mishra was also hard working, to which Vajpayee retorted with a mischievous smile, "Yes, Brajesh too was hard working, but then I had to worry about the consequences," Ghatate recounted this to Mishra and the two had a good laugh.

Ghatate has been busy compiling Vajpayee's jokes and witticisms into a book. He has so far collected about 80; he knows there are many more out there.

A timeline

The Hindu Net Desk, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, poet and politician: a timeline, August 17, 2018: The Hindu

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, poet and politician: a timeline

According to The Hindu's archives, former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was was a firm believer in secularism. He was fond of repeating that Hinduism was not a religion but a secular way of life.

Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who passed away today at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, was a skilled orator and politician. We bring to you a timeline based on The Hindu's archives, documenting his political life. According to The Hindu, Vajpayee was an "out and out a politician, with oratory as his forte. He can cast a spell on his audiences and to their delight, and with his biting sarcasm, demolish the case of his opponents. Compared to others, Mr. Vajpayee is liberal, flexible and open to conviction."

December 25, 1924: Atal Bihari Vajpayee born in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh. Vajpayee had a brilliant career both at school and in the university with scholarships won on merit. He was a fluent speaker in English, inheriting the gift of the gab from his father Pandit K. B. Vajpayee. Father and son created history in the Lucknow University where they studied Law together.

1939: Member of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (R S S), and after finishing his Masters in Political Science from Kanpur, he began to work full-time for the R S S in 1941

1942: During the 1942 Quit India movement, he gave up his studies to court imprisonment and later came back to win another scholarship to pursue his post-graduate studies. He had his political training under the late Dr. Shyama Prasad Mukerji. He was Dr. Mukerji's private secretary, and was with him when he died in a Kashmir jail. Before entering Parliament, Mr. Vajpayee was a journalist by profession and edited Rashtra Dharma and Veer Arjun.

1951: He was one of the founding members of the Jan Sangh, becoming its president in 1968 on the death of Deendayal Upadhyaya.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee addressing the nation for the first time after assuming office in New Delhi on May 19, 1996.
From: The Hindu Net Desk, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, poet and politician: a timeline, August 17, 2018: The Hindu

1957: Vajpayee was first elected to the Lok Sabha from Balrampur in Uttar Pradesh and was twice member of the Rajya Sabha.

1958: Vajpayee was imprisoned during the U.P. food agitation in 1958 and during the talks with Pakistan on Kutch in 1967.

June 13, 1964: As his parliamentary career flourished, Vajpayee made a name for himself as an orator and for his poetic flourishes. Vajpayee, as a member of the Jan Sangh, paid a glowing tribute to Jawaharlal Nehru, in the Rajya Sabha. He described Mr. Nehru as a thoroughly honest man and an idealist “who was never afraid to negotiate and never negotiated with fear”. Though he differed in his views from Mr. Nehru, he burst into tears both in the Upper House and in the all-parties meeting in the Central Hall while paying homage to Mr. Nehru in poetic and chaste Hindi.

According to The Hindu, Vajpayee was a firm believer in secularism. He was fond of repeating that "Hinduism was not a religion but a secular way of life," a report published in The Hindu on June 13, 1964 read.

1968: He became president of the party's new incarnation, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh from 1968 to 1973.

1974: He was arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) in Bihar.

1975: During the Emergency, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh along with several parties merged to form the Janata Party.

1977-79: In the Morarji Desai led Janata Party government, Vajpayee became the MEA.

1980: After the failure of the Janata experiment, the Bharatiya Janata Party was launched, and Vajpayee became its president. He remained the president of the party till 1986

1984: The newly founded BJP, after the dissolution of the Jan Sangh, won only two seats in the Parliamentary Elections.

December 6, 1992: Demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Vajpayee is on record as having said that he had warned L.K. Advani on the possible disastrous consequences of collecting a large crowd at the disputed site. Vajpayee was subsequently censured at an emergency meeting of the party's national executive committee for having gone beyond the R S S brief in expressing regret over the demolition of the Masjid.

1992: Vajpayee awarded the Padma Vibhushan award.

President K.R. Narayanan administers the oath of office to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee at a swearing-in-ceremony at the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhawan in New Delhi on October 13, 1999.
Photo Credit- The Hindu Archives
From: The Hindu Net Desk, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, poet and politician: a timeline, August 17, 2018: The Hindu

1995: As the BJP threw its weight behind the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, he emerged as the prime ministerial candidate on behalf of the BJP.

1996: He became Prime Minister, leading a 13-day government as head of the single largest party.

1998-99: Vajpayee was Prime Minister with the NDA government after a United Front government fell when the Congress withdrew support. He oversaw the Pokhran nuclear test and the subsequent international sanctions that went with it. The term was also marked by his initiatives for peace with Pakistan and the Lahore declaration. His 13-month government, however, could not withstand the rather fragile coalition that he had put together, and with the AIADMK withdrawing support, his government fell.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee with AIADMK supremo Jayalalitha, at the co-ordination committee meeting, in New Delhi on March 27, 1999.
From: The Hindu Net Desk, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, poet and politician: a timeline, August 17, 2018: The Hindu

1999: During Vajpayee's term, the Army conducted Operation Vijay to wrest territories along the Line of Control after the Pakistan Army undertook a covert operation to send its troops into Kargil that led to a limited conflict that Pakistan lost.

1999-2004: Appointed Prime Minister leading the NDA alliance with a comfortable majority and a government that lasted a full term till 2004, the first non-Congress government to do so. During his address to the nation following the election, he said: "We are all guided by the lofty principles of secularism, social justice, social, harmony and women's empowerment. Ours is a Government wedded to a common ideal: to create a kinder, gentler and more tolerant society, free from all discrimination, fear and insecurity.”

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (L) receives his Indian counterpart Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the Wagah Border on February 20, 1999.
Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives
From: The Hindu Net Desk, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, poet and politician: a timeline, August 17, 2018: The Hindu

February 20, 1999: Inauguration of the Delhi-Lahore bus service. Television cameras captured the historic and stirring images of Prime Minister Vajpayee and his entourage getting into a bus and driving into Pakistan, to be greeted warmly by a Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the border. On February 21, the Lahore Declaration was signed by the two Prime Ministers.

1999: During Vajpayee’s term, the Pakistan Army undertook a covert operation to send its troops into Kargil. US President Bill Clinton pushed Nawaz Sharif into withdrawing Pakistani troops from Kargil after a meeting in Washington. The Kargil War, also known as Operation Vijay, which was won by India, was a defining moment of Vajpayee’s tenure.

December 13, 2001: Parliament is attacked during his third term as Prime Minister. Subsequently, the NDA government brought in the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA).

2004: Still attended Lok Sabha after his government’s defeat in the polls but gradually withdrew from public life.

2009: Vajpayee suffered a stroke that weakened his cognitive abilities.

2015: Vajpayee awarded the Bharat Ratna.

August 16, 2018: Atal Bihari Vajpayee passes away, age 93, after battling ill health for years.


August 17, 2018: The Times of India


In the early 1950s, when Vajpayee and Advani were trying to make their mark in Delhi, the two shared a room. Vajpayee is said to have done the cooking, and Advani has complained good-naturedly about the amount of khichdi he had to eat.


Vajpayee loved his food and cooking, and was “head cook” for the other political prisoners when he was in Chandigarh jail during the Emergency. He’s said to have enjoyed khichdi, kheer, malpuas and bhang.


When someone asked him why he had a photograph of PV Narasimha Rao in his house long after the former PM had fallen out of favour with everyone, Vajpayee is said to have replied, “I don’t change my friends according to political fortunes.”


Vajpayee enrolled in DAV College Kanpur to study law, and his father Krishna Bihari, a teacher who’d always wanted to be a lawyer, joined him. Father and son were reportedly in the same class and shared a room in the hostel. Students from the time recall the father and son cooking together in the evening, again khichdi and sweets.


Vajpayee’s toast to Clinton at the White House dinner on Sept 17, 2000 was: “I owe my presence here today principally to two persons, widely separated in time and also in space. One was the explorer, Christopher Columbus, who set sail for India but landed in America. I sometimes wonder where you would be, or where we would be, if he had actually reached India.”


The former PM enjoyed popular novels from Agatha Christie to John Grisham. Former US President Bill Clinton joked about Vajpayee’s penchant for Grisham when he visited the US: “I’m told PM Vajpayee, when he’s not writing poetry, likes to read John Grisham. You may be interested to note, Mr PM, that he’s a distant relative. All Grishams with money are distant relatives.”


Avid movie buffs Vajpayee and Advani watched many films together. After they became PM and deputy PM respectively, they watched special screenings, including most of Shah Rukh’s films and Hrithik Roshan’s Koi Mil Gaya.

Vignettes II

August 17, 2018: The Times of India

OLD FRIENDS- Atal Bihari Vajpayee with L K Advani outside Parliament
From: August 17, 2018: The Times of India



Friends say Vajpayee loved to travel. On holiday in the US in the 1990s, friends recall the child-like enthusiasm with which he queued up for each ride at Disneyland, made trips to Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon, watched Broadway shows, and enjoyed Mexican food. He was known to wander the streets of New York City dressed in trousers and an old shirt, and buy ice cream cones for his security entourage



Just before a visit to China when he was external affairs minister in the Janata government, Vajpayee fell ill. In a meeting with journalists before he left, one of them asked how he was feeling. Vajpayee’s reply: “ Chinese food khane ke liye badhiya (All set to eat Chinese food)”



In 1977, Morarji Desai made a trip to the then USSR during which he scolded Indian students there for drinking. They tried explaining that they drank to keep themselves warm, but Desai was in no mood to listen. On the way out of the room, though, Vajpayee winked and whispered to them, “ Piyo, piyo (drink, drink)


King Khan has always been apolitical but he’s often spoken fondly of Vajpayee. SRK has said that when he was a child his father used to take him to INA Market in Delhi to make him hear Vajpayee’s speeches as his dad felt Vajpayee had excellent command over Hindi and that SRK could learn from him

A profile

India Today

The BJP's first truly mass leader is officially etched as a national symbol, making him a role model for India's right-wing and beyond

Ravish Tiwari December 25, 2014

Thanksgiving is not a tradition on the Indian calendar. And it is unlikely the thought would have crossed the mind of the powers that be in NDA 2 who went through with the not-unexpected decision to confer the Bharat Ratna on Atal Bihari Vajpayee-former prime minister, poet, patriarch and a political pioneer like few others. Call it coincidence, or the articulation of a subconscious thought, but there is little doubt that NDA 2 owes a huge debt of gratitude to the man who was not just the architect of NDA 1 but also the moderate face of India's right wing politics.

A face, thought and expression- through lucid prose, poetry and some very pregnant pauses-that helped build a mainstream right-wing political movement and made it acceptable to the masses. So much so that his six-year reign at the head of NDA 1, and the decades of struggle preceding that, is now seen as the foundation on which NDA 2, India's first genuinely right-wing government with a brute majority of its own, has been built. The timing, therefore, could not be more apt.

Vajpayee was not alone when the seeds of an alternative, Hindu nationalist political thought were being sown across India. Former Hindu Mahasabha leader Syama Prasad Mookerjee had quit Jawaharlal Nehru's cabinet to float the Jan Sangh had provided some of its finest men- Pandit Deendayal Upadhyay, Nanaji Deshmukh, Jagannath Rao Joshi, Kushabhau Thakre and Sunder Singh Bhandari, among others-to help this political alternative grow roots. Vajpayee and L.K. Advani were the electoral faces identified to push the movement.

The Jan Sangh mutated into the Janata Party before reclaiming itself as the BJP, struggled to cope with the untimely deaths of Mookerjee and Upadhyay and the fact that others such as Deshmukh, Joshi, Thakre and Bhandari had little appeal beyond their own party. Enter Vajpayee, the powerful orator, moderate nationalist, bon vivant and relationship builder. The India of the 1980s and '90s, where political churn met economic flexibility and sought to discard socialist shibboleths was a platform that was made to order. Although Advani also climbed dizzying heights of popular appeal at the peak of the Ram Temple campaign, he will happily concede that his fellow traveller's mass appeal was more enduring.

While the Hindu nationalist movement has a new icon in the form of Narendra Modi, it will take him some doing to overshadow or dislodge Vajpayee as the presiding deity. Debating against Nehru, supporting Indira Gandhi for the 1971 Bangaldesh war, opposing her imposition of Emergency, merging their carefully nurtured Jan Sangh into the Janata Party, floating the BJP, supporting V.P. Singh to dislodge Congress again and becoming the first BJP prime minister in 1996-Vajpayee has been the flagbearer at all key political milestones in post-Independence India. It's a feat that can be matched by few other anti-Congress icons.

Vajpayee's NDA with an alphabet soup of some two dozen parties is arguably India's best-run coalition government yet. It sought to unshackle the economy while trying to keep the saffron warriors at bay-a worthy role model for its successor. And that is perhaps where the irony also comes into play-a Modi trying to focus on governance and development while the Sangh snaps at his heels with its divisive agenda. The wheel comes a full circle. Not only is the Bharat Ratna a token of the subconscious gratitude, it is also a mark of recognition for the BJP's ideal role model.

Thus spake Atal Bihari Vajpayee

August 17, 2018: The Times of India


In an interview to TOI on Apr 12, 2004, ahead of Lok Sabha election which turned out to be his last shot at being PM, Vajpayee spoke on the need for moderation and dharma of coalitions


Hindutva and Bharatiyata have the same meaning. But I would prefer to say Bharatiyata. Hamare yahan (in BJP) Hindutva wale bhi hain (There are also among us the Hindutva people)


I did admire Nehru... his intellectual depth which had a blend of spirituality as well. The description of Ganga in his Discovery of India can only be the work of a mahakavi (great poet). But when comparisons are made (between him and Nehru), people forget that he wasn’t alone. There were many tall leaders


I don’t indulge in chalaki (cunning) with anyone. I don’t let people down. I don’t indulge in ustadgiri. All parties felt this man will stand by us We were convinced that to run such a big country a coalition will be necessary. And we shouldn’t let ideology get in the way. Strong regional traditions will feel they have a voice at the Centre. We’re definitely moving to a federal polity


BJP has always been open to experimentation. Circumstances have changed us, and, in turn, we have changed the circumstances. It is a two-way process


Peace, good relations with Pakistan, without compromising India’s interest, is a dream I have nurtured even before I became external affairs minister in 1977… I have faith in the insaniyat of people everywhere, including the people of Pakistan. There is the realisation that more war is neither a solution nor an option


People tend to assume that Advaniji is very hard… It is a 50-year-old relationship. Yes, sometimes there are differences in thoughts. Sometimes he has his way, sometimes I do.

1934: The evolution of an orator

Salil Mekaad and Brajesh Parmar, The speech that Vajpayee couldn’t finish, August 17, 2018: The Times of India

Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was known for his speeches that could move millions or fire them up with josh (enthusiasm), but very few people know that he was tongue-tied when he stood before his schoolmates during a debate in Barnagar town of Ujjain district in 1934.

Vajpayee spoke of this ‘life-changing moment’ at a public rally while campaigning for the 1996 Lok Sabha election. He could not finish the first speech of his life. He was booed. “But I learned a lesson that changed my life. I took a pledge that I’d never rote-learn a speech. It was my first speech at AVM (Anglo Vernacular Middle) School,” Vajpayee had said.

Vajpayee, who was admitted to AVM School on August 4, 1934, after his father Krishna Bihari Vajpayee joined there as headmaster from Gwalior, never forgot the moment he stood up to address the audience during a debate on ‘Development of railway line laid down in India by the British’.

The man known for his flawless speeches had said: “I was afraid. I stood up without any preparation. I was stammering while speaking. It was the school’s annual fest and the speech was discontinued midway. I was booed by my schoolmates, who accused me of learning the speech by rote.”

It was the first of his many failures that he later turned into springboards for success. Vajpayee spent nearly a year at the school before being transferred back to Gwalior. According to a biography on Vajpayee, his father, a post-graduate scholar, had once told his friend Gangadhar Rao Valuskar: “I will make sure that my son Atal shines like a star one day.”

Vajpayee, who was lovingly called ‘Atalla’ by his mother Krishna, often spoke of the year he spent in Barnagar. “I have a deep connection with Malwa region. I studied in Barnagar,” he had said, adding with his quiet sense of humour, “My studies are of some use now, this you will have to accept.” The haveli that once housed AVM School is now in ruins.

I was afraid. I stood up without any preparation. I was stammering while speaking. It was the school’s annual fest and the speech was discontinued midway. I was booed by my schoolmates, who accused me of learning the speech by rote


Former Prime Minister

The poet and the politician

Avijit Ghosh, August 17, 2018: The Times of India

How balancing poetry and politics wasn’t always easy

In the winter of 1988, a critically ailing A B Vajpayee was admitted to a New York hospital. From the hospital bed, he wrote a letter and a poem to the editor of Dharmyug, a famous Hindi magazine in its time.

‘Kavya ki kasauti par mera prayas bhale hi khara na utre, kintu yeh meri zindagi ka dastavez hai,’ wrote Vajpayee, roughly translated into English as “My effort may not stand up to the benchmark of poetry but it is my life’s document.”

The poem, where he wrote of his face-off with death, was published as ‘Zindagi Ka Dastavez’ in the magazine’s December 8 issue. Cryptically and philosophically, he wrote, ‘Maut ki umra kya / Do pal ki bhi nahin’ (What’s the lifespan of death/Not even a few moments).

Vajpayee penned hundreds of poems, compiled in collections such as ‘Meri Ekyavan Kavitayein’ (My 51 poems) and ‘Na Dainyam Na Palayanam’ (Neither Self-Pity Nor Escape). And they were translated into various languages, including Bulgarian. One of his poems, ‘Kya Khoya Kya Paaya’ was set to tune by ghazal singer Jagjit Singh. Shah Rukh Khan starred in the music video. In one his works of prose, ‘Atmakathya’ (My Story), he wrote he inherited the craft from his father, who was a well-known poet of Gwalior riyasat. Vajpayee was inspired by Tulsidas’s ‘Ramcharitmanas’, Jaishanker Prasad’s ‘Kamayani’, Suryakant Tripathi Nirala’s ‘Ram Ki Shakti Puja’ and Mahadevi Verma’s ‘Geet’.

Some of Vajpayee poems allude to Hindu mythology and history. One of them, ‘Parichay’ (Introduction), begins with the line: ‘Hindu, tan-man, Hindu jeevan, rag rag Hindu mera parichay’ (Body and soul Hindu, Hindu life, Hindu in my every vein, Hindu my introduction).

Along with themes of valour and nationalism, his works also touched upon existential themes and oppression, particularly by the state during the Emergency. Vajpayee accepted that balancing poetry and politics wasn’t easy and credited jail visits with keeping the poet in him alive. Some of his light-hearted but politically-aware verse were written in jail during Emergency, where he describes himself as ‘Qaidi Kavirai’ (Prisoner-poet).

Self-introspection found its way into his poetry. ‘Zindagi Ka Dastavez’, later published as ‘Maut Se Thhan Gayee’ (Face-Off With Death) is one such: ‘Tu dabe paon, chori-chhipe na aa/Saamne vaar kar, phir mujhe aazma. (Don’t come tiptoeing playing hide and seek/Attack me upfront, then test me). In the end, though, death tiptoed in quietly and slowly for Vajpayee.

The eternal bachelor

Faiz Siddiqui, To evade marriage, Atal locked himself up for 3 days, August 18, 2018: The Times of India

Atal Bihari Vajpayee could remain a bachelor because of his “unwavering resolve”, which he showed by locking himself up in a friend’s house for three days when he came to know that his parents were looking for a match for him, Vijay Prakash, son of his friend late Gorey Lal Tripathi, told TOI on Friday.

During the mid-1940s, when Vajpayee was a PG student at Kanpur’s DAV College, he escaped to Tripathi’s house in Raipur village in Patara block of the district, when he learned that his parents were planning his marriage. The two had become friends while attending R-S-S shakha.

“My father used to tell us that Atalji had locked himself in the room meant for guests. He didn’t come out for three days. Atalji had asked my father to lock the room from outside. He would knock at the door from inside when he needed water or food or to go to toilet,” Vijay says.

When friend Gorey Lal asked him why he was running away from wedding, Vajpayee told him that he wanted to dedicate his life to the nation and marriage would create hurdles. That was when Atal was getting closer to the R-S-S.

Vijay Prakash says his father would often recount this episode of his dear friend’s life.

Vajpayee remembered his friend’s family even after becoming a national political leader, he says. “I met him in 1989 in Lucknow when he was leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha. I requested him to help me get a job. Though he didn’t promise anything, it was due to his efforts that I could get a job in a Kanpurbased magazine,” he says.

Vijay says Vajpayee always had a lot of affection for the people of Kanpur. “He made it a point to attend weddings and other private functions of his old acquaintances,” he says.

The leader

Neelam Raaj, May 14, 2023: The Times of India

NEW DELHI: Besides offering some interesting insights into his early life, Abhishek Choudhary’s new biography titled ‘Vajpayee: The Ascent of the Hindu Right 1924-1977’ rebuts several myths about the man. In an interview to Sunday Times, Choudhary talks about why his aim was not to write a tribute but an unsentimental portrait, warts and all

There have been countless books on Vajpayee. What made you delve into his life?

At the time I delved into this project, in 2015, there was surprisingly no major study on him. As I spent a few months in the archives, I stumbled upon new facts and interpretations and realised that we knew shockingly little about his early life: how he had managed to evade arrest during the R S S ban of 1948-49, and how he steered the underground in Allahabad and Banaras; the deaths of his parents from cancer in quick succession in 1955. Meanwhile, with a BJP government in power, there was a renewed interest in understanding his career. But most books that came out were based on secondary sources, and were often either hagiographic or quickies that caricatured his apparent liberalism and meat-eating and drinking habits. I hoped that if I slogged long and hard enough in the archives, I might be able to say something of value.

You have unearthed some fascinating insights into his childhood— how contrary to myth, he wasn’t a good student; his early poems that spoke of Hindu victimhood etc. How did his early years in Gwalior influence him?

The decade he spent in Gwalior (1935-45) shaped his politics profoundly and, in many ways, lasted a lifetime. It was there that the adolescent Atal obsessively consumed the Arya Samaji version of history — of a glorious ancient India of Hindus being undone by Islamic and British conquests — through newspapers, plays, novels. It was there that he wrote ‘Hindu Tann Mann’, his most popular poem; it was there that he first attended the R S S shakha and discovered his gift for public speaking; and it was there that he won his first student union elections. By the time he left for Kanpur in 1945 for his master’s (and never quite returned home), his political character was more or less formed: essentially conservative yet curious and conciliatory, detached yet quietly ambitious.

Others have written about how Vajpayee admired Nehru but the picture you paint is of lots of differences, especially over issues like China, and then a grudging respect. Is that correct?

Yes! Their early exchanges in Parliament in 1957 were bitter, with Vajpayee constantly sniping at Nehru’s failures, and the Prime Minister writing him off as somewhere between a minor nuisance and a “highly objectionable person”. The animus began to melt gradually. Vajpayee noticed that despite the occasional fits of temper, Nehru was tolerant and unjudgemental towards the opposition. Nehru did not mind receiving occasional praise and constructive advice from an adversary; he also began to think of Vajpayee as a bright young man in an otherwise regressive party.

Contrary to myths, though, Nehru never prophesied a prime ministership for Vajpayee, for it would have meant having the country run by the Sangh Parivar—perhaps one of his worst nightmares. They bickered inside and outside Parliament—on the border dispute with China especially— till Nehru’s last days, but personally they continued to be affectionate.

As a biographer, you’ve surely had an intense and, at times, all-consuming focus on his life for the last few years. What did you make of him? He was a man of many contradictions, wasn’t he? Indeed, he was! But moral dilemma is rather common, banal even, and biographers train themselves to tackle it. My bigger challenge was often separating his genuine dilemmas from his cynical doublespeak on dozens of occasions—his December 5, 1992 speech in Lucknow on the eve of Babri demolition, or his April 4, 2002 Rajdharma pep-talk in Ahmedabad. I leave the judging to readers.

You’ve noted how his stock has been rising in recent years but are you also arguing he hasn’t got enough credit for the rise of Jan Sangh/BJP?

No, I didn’t mean that. I was simply trying to counter the public myths on Vajpayee (liberal vs mask binaries), and pleading for more rigorous assessments of the Hindu Right. I argue that to interpret their ascent simply as a byproduct of the Ayodhya movement is lazy and self-deceptive. It bypasses an earlier trend: the Jan Sangh galloped from four Lok Sabha seats in 1957 to 35 in 1967 and 90 in 1977. And the BJP-R S S’s recent obsessions — Ayodhya, Uniform Civil Code, Article 370, a central ban on cow-slaughter — all date back to the early decades. Vajpayee had been the party’s face since 1957, and one of its key strategists. In that sense, he was more critical to the Sangh’s project of Hinduising India than someone like Advani.

Another myth that you bust is that his relationship with Rajkumari Kaul was purely intellectual. How did she influence him?

Despite being a rising political star, Vajpayee was emotionally a lonely, desolate man-child. The deaths of his parents in 1955 had stunned him. The trauma demanded closure, but there had been no time and no outlet. Rajkumari became the emotional anchor of his life but attributing his political moderation or intellectual evolution to her is a serious exaggeration, though Prof B N Kaul, her husband, sometimes added finesse to Vajpayee’s speeches.

The foodie

Sonam Joshi, Sashimi to puris, always a foodie, August 17, 2018: The Times of India

Former PM Vajpayee was quite adventurous when it came to trying new dishes and generous in his compliments, says chef Hemant Oberoi, who regularly accompanied Vajpayee on foreign trips.

Vajpayee’s eclectic eating habits set him apart from PMs that followed. “PM Manmohan Singh was a simple eater. Rarely would he eat non-vegetarian food, maybe just a bit of fish. The present PM is vegetarian,” says Oberoi. “PM Vajpayee would try different food.” On tour, he’d taste local cuisine like sashimi in Japan.

He had a soft spot for Amritsari-style fish and Kerala prawn curry, but his comfort food remained a staple from his home state of UP: Lucknowi-style puribhaji. “Even in Tokyo, he would request it for breakfast. Sometimes it was difficult to get atta for puris, but once we knew he liked it we started carrying it or the ambassador would provide for it,” says Oberoi.

When Vajpayee hosted lunch for then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf at Delhi’s Taj Palace hotel in 2001, Oberoi was summoned to the table. Vajpayee gestured towards Musharraf who wasn’t eating. It was only when Oberoi assured Musharraf that the food was halal that he ate.

Vajpayee was liberal with praise, sending chefs letters of appreciation. Oberoi recalls receiving an autographed copy of a photograph with Vajpayee that was taken during a flight from New York to Washington DC.

In 2014, not in good health

A peek into the life Atal Bihari Vajpayee now leads

Akshaya Mukul, March 26, 2014: The Times of India

(This article was written when the UPA headed by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh was in power)

A better part of Vajpayee's day is spent with physiotherapists, doctors and nurses.

2014 Less than a five-minute drive from the Ashoka Road headquarters of BJP, where the old guard is losing ground to the new, Atal Bihari Vajpayee sits quietly in a wheelchair in his SPG-guarded Krishna Menon Marg bungalow watching snatches of television and reading newspaper headlines.

The master orator, who was silenced by a stroke in 2009, cannot grasp either the small print or the big picture of what's happening within the party he nurtured. The three-time Prime Minister — last between 1999 and 2004 — bid adieu to active politics almost a decade ago. Now, as Modi — whom he'd wanted removed as Gujarat chief minister after the Godhra riots of 2002 — tightens his hold over BJP, some of his close friends and followers are feeling slighted or pushed to the wall.

Unlike the good old days, no one comes calling on him with complaints about the party or to listen to his poetry. The only regular visitors are N M Ghatate, Vajpayee's friend of nearly six decades, L K Advani and B C Khanduri (the general-turned-politician who was chief minister of Uttarakhand), who come to sit by his side or ask daughter Namita about his health. Ghatate who visits him almost every week, sometimes even twice, says, "Prime Minister Manmohan Singh makes regular inquiries about his health and never misses wishing Vajpayeeji personally on his birthday." The two, Ghatate says, have an old association. Ghatate remembers how then PM PV Narasimha Rao called Vajpayee to complain that his finance minister Manmohan Singh had taken criticism of his budget by the opposition to heart and had offered to resign.

During a career spent mostly in opposition, Vajpayee had criticized everyone, from Nehru to his daughter Indira, but never realized it could hurt someone so much. Ghatate says Vajpayee immediately called Singh and told him not to take such comments to heart as they were meant to score political points. The Rao government was saved an embarrassment, and a new friendship was forged.

Ghatate says Vajpayee is still mentally alert. "But the stroke he suffered does not let him speak." Till then, he'd kept himself busy with books and writing. Within two months of the 2004 electoral defeat, he wrote a four-page article on the successful NDA coalition experiment and how even Congress had to fall in line; he argued that coalitions were here to stay.

A better part of Vajpayee's day, Ghatate says, is spent with physiotherapists, doctors and nurses. "I go there and just watch him or talk to family members. He understands everything but cannot have a conversation," he says. Vajpayee's favourite food — Chinese and prawns — is now served only in small portions.

Advani, who was deputy PM in the last NDA government, is reported to have wistfully told some people that Vajpayee would consult him on "everything". When asked if BJP leaders still asked him for advice, he is believed to have replied, cryptically, "When they need to."

For Ghatate, who first met him in the 1950s, the sight of the silent statesman is heart-rending. Vajpayee, who had known Ghatate's father, Babasaheb Ghatate, a senior Hindu Mahasabha leader, took the young law student under his wing in Delhi and treated him like a younger brother.

Of all the things that the protracted illness has taken away, Ghatate misses Vajpayee's sense of humour the most. When Ghatate gave him the news of the death of JN Dixit, Manmohan Singh's first national security advisor, Vajpayee said, "He was a good man. His problem was he used to work hard and worry a lot about the consequences." Ghatate pointed out Vajpayee's NSA and Dixit's predecessor Brajesh Mishra was also hard working, to which Vajpayee retorted with a mischievous smile, "Yes, Brajesh too was hard working, but then I had to worry about the consequences," Ghatate recounted this to Mishra and the two had a good laugh.

Ghatate has been busy compiling Vajpayee's jokes and witticisms into a book. He has so far collected about 80; he knows there are many more out there.

Political career

An overview

India Today

Shekhar Gupta

March 26, 2015

The man who got it right: Poet, pragmatist, always political

Atal Bihari Vajpayee's greatest, durable legacy is to show that India is best governed with a large heart

Shekhar Gupta

The Narendra Modi government has given us the perfect reason to do so by honouring Atal Bihari Vajpayee with the Bharat Ratna. One key assessment for a full-term prime minister, particularly a popularly elected one, would be how much of what he willed, began and believed in survive his departure. On that, Vajpayee scores very well indeed.

There's been broad continuity in the direction of India's economic and foreign policy. A leader, therefore, can only change the pace and width. But this isn't a big, substantive change in mindsets, a big idea that challenges ossified ones and is established so firmly that it is unassailable to future depredations. Nehru's liberal pluralism is one such idea.

Even Modi has to swear by it, even if he prefers to do so in the name of Patel and Gandhi. His second contribution-a rational, questioning, secular society with scientific temper-has sustained so far. But it will be tested in the coming years as India's new politics probes an important fault line there: contradiction between his nearly godless view of secularism and a deeply god-fearing society.

The third one, socialism, Nehruvian or Fabian, has been fully demolished, notably for 15 years by Nehru's own party's governments (under P.V. Narasimha Rao, Manmohan Singh). Ditto for Indira Gandhi. Her idea of a powerful, no-nonsense India not shy of playing Great Power politics endures, and will be strengthened as the BJP reaches out to get in their creeping acquisition of Congress icons after Madan Mohan Malaviya, Sardar Patel, and now Lal Bahadur Shastri. Her aggressive equal-distribution-of-poverty in the name of Garibi Hatao is now dead and buried, and derided as povertarianism. If her party's score of 44 in 2014 is the coffin, legislations amending coal and mineral laws and states loosening labour regulations are the last nails in it.

Now the unusual suspect, Rao. The demolition of two of the three ideological pillars of the Nehru-Indira era, statist socialism and Westophobic worldview, began in his five years. He was a socialist but more a pragmatist. He was helped greatly by the seven-year eclipse of the Gandhi family, directly for five years through his prime ministership and for his new ideas through the Gowda-Gujral period, when a coalition backed by the Congress left its economy to P. Chidambaram, then of the breakaway Tamil Maanila Congress. No matter how deep the Congress may bury his name in their party history, Rao won that intellectual battle, and you can never take away from his five difficult years.

Vajpayee followed in his wake (after the short-lived United Front) to become the first non-Congress leader to get five, in fact six, years of prime ministership, with one hiccup when he was defeated in the Lok Sabha in 1999 and forced to fight yet another election, his third in three years. Both were veterans of Parliament and had a great deal of mutual respect and admiration between them. Vajpayee always saw Rao as an experienced, wise patriot, and did not have the same suspicions of him as of the Dynasty. Rao saw Vajpayee as an alter ego of sorts, in spite of such a contrast in their personalities. Remember, he sent him to Geneva as leader of the Indian delegation to counter a threatened UN Human Rights Commission vote against India, with Salman Khurshid, then MoS for external affairs, as his deputy. He never detested Vajpayee personally or ideologically. That "honour" was reserved for Advani. I, therefore, firmly believe the story that as Rao handed over to Vajpayee (although initially only for 13 days), he told him that he had kept all "saamagri" (material, nuclear) ready, and Vajpayee should go ahead and test once he had the mandate. The departure Rao bravely made from the Nehru-Indira construct on foreign and economic policies has sustained.

What exactly was Vajpayee's opportunity once the direction of foreign and economic policies was set? A liberal constitutionalist and a romantic, a bit like Nehru, and a poet too. Not gifted with the ruthlessness of an Indira, a Rao or now Modi, nor a visionary like Nehru. But he had a great, instinctive mind and a wonderfully warm and, more important, large heart. God never designed a man withall the key attributes of leadership. The greatest leaders in history have some and lack a few. But nobody ever did, or will, become a great leader in any field without a big heart. On that test, Vajpayee ranks very much at the top. We leave Manmohan Singh out of this as he really wasn't a fully empowered leader.

Nor was Vajpayee when sworn in prime minister for the first time in 1996 by virtue of being the leader of the largest single party/coalition. He knew he was going to fail his first test, the vote of confidence in Parliament within days, as all of the opposition was against him under the secular umbrella. But his mind was made up and his heart was ready to chalk the course that would ensure for him such a special place in our history.

It was two days before he was to speak in that debate that I got a call to see him in his old Raisina Road home, which he had not moved from, knowing his tenure was short. He was calm, determined, even smiling. "I believe you once wrote somewhere that the majority in India had acquired a minority complex?" he asked. I said yes; it was in a monograph I wrote for the International Institute of Strategic Studies, London (India Redefines its Role, OUP, 1995) while on a sabbatical from this magazine. He engaged in a short debate on why Hindus in India felt vulnerable, even persecuted, despite being in an overwhelming majority. He said he understood why, but did not fully agree with it. In any case, he said, he was elected prime minister not to feel sorry for the Hindus, but to lead them out of that hole and also reassure the minorities. He dwelt on that majority-getting-the-minority-complex idea in his emotional speech facing a confirmed defeat.

But in that defeat he had told India's Parliament and its people that he was different from the usual BJP stereotype. That trust ensured two things. One, that a lot more people, besides the BJP's committed voters, were willing to check him out now. And two, many smaller parties sitting on the secular fence found the reassurance to cross over to the NDA. Remember, Nitish, Mamata, Naveen Patnaik, even Omar Abdullah of the National Conference were in his councilof ministers.

In his six years, he established two new ideas in Indian politics. One, that the BJP could lead a centre-right government in India entirely within the classical framework of the Constitution, thereby confirming the idea that India would change BJP more than BJP change India. Two, that the doctrine of strategic restraint would hold, even under grave provocation, as in Kargil and the attack on Parliament. The gains were evident: the first established the sanctity of the LoC and the second globally confirmed Pakistan's status as a terror-exporting nation.

The second postulate will be tested in the coming years. But the first, the Vajpayee definition of Rajdharma for the BJP, has been established. If Modi now swears by Vajpayee rather than Golwalkar, the direction he set for the BJP, or the governing ideology of the Indian Right, will sustain. That will be his lasting contribution, and it is as formidable as Nehru's liberalism, Indira's strength and Rao's pragmatism. On that scale, Vajpayee will rank right up there. Never mind the irony of his being conferred the Bharat Ratna by Modi's government.

Winning hearts, 1964-99

With iron fist and velvet verse, he won hearts, August 17, 2018: The Times of India

Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee- Addressing a gathering in Mumbai
From: With iron fist and velvet verse, he won hearts, August 17, 2018: The Times of India


Of India’s 14 PMs, Pt Jawaharlal Nehru belonged to a special universe. Among the rest, Vajapyee is incomparable on two counts: First, for being an ajaatashatru (one with no enemies); second, for his spell-binding oratory. Many leaders who are captivating public speakers have a temptation to use their oratorical skill to gain popularity. Vajpayee, unquestionably the greatest orator in Hindi, was different. His speeches were thoughtful. During debates or at rallies, the audiences were both entertained and provoked to think. Here is my choice of five of his speeches:


Those in the Sangh Parivar who have made vilification of Nehru their pastime would do well to listen to Vajpayee’s heartfelt tribute to him in Parliament a few days after his death on May 27, 1964. “Mother India is in mourning as her beloved Prince has gone to sleep... A dream has remained halffulfilled, a song has become silent, and a flame has vanished into the unknown. The dream was a world free of fear and hunger; the song a great epic resonant with the spirit of the Gita, and as fragrant as a rose; the flame a candle which burnt all night long, showing us the way… The chief actor of the world stage has departed after performing his last act.” Finally, endorsing an ideal dear to Nehru’s heart, he said: If India continued to strive to “establish lasting peace, we shall succeed in paying proper homage to him.”


For decades after he joined Parliament in 1957, Vajpayee was praised as “the best PM India has never had”. That changed in May 1996, when he became India’s 10th PM, unluckily, only for 13 days. Though BJP was the single largest party in Lok Sabha, it failed to secure enough allies. The speech Vajpayee delivered at the conclusion of the debate on the confidence motion telecast live for the first time on TV became one of the greatest in Parliament’s history. Turning defeat into triumph, he predicted that though he was quitting, he would return to form the government after winning the people’s mandate. The prediction came true in 1998, and again in 1999.


It was characteristic of Vajpayee that there was no trace of triumphalism in the first speech he delivered in Parliament in March 1998, when he returned as the head of the first NDA government. Rather, he used the occasion to drive home the important lesson about the need for all parties to work together to strengthen India’s democracy, promote good governance and ensure people’s welfare. Inaugurating a new era of politics based on “coalition dharma” and consensus between ruling as well as opposition parties, he said: “All of us have to work together to face and overcome the problems and challenges before the nation. This cannot be done by a single party or a single alliance.”


History will remember Vajpayee for his bold decision to make India a nuclear weapons state. His speech in Parliament, after the nuclear tests near Pokhran on May 9 and 11, 1998, was marked by both firmness and restraint. Replying to criticism from Congress, he said he, as the leader of Jana Sangh, had supported Pokhran I conducted by Indira Gandhi in 1974. He explained that Pokhran II was necessitated as India had to be “fully self-reliant in matters of national security”.

He reminded his critics: “Vah purusharth ke prakateekaran ke liye nahin tha (We did not do it to boast our valour).” Rather, “our policy is that our country should have a minimum and credible deterrent so that no external power will ever dare threaten us”. He reiterated the pillars of India’s nuclear doctrine: No first-use, and never use against countries without nuclear weapons.


Vajpayee’s greatest achievement as PM was not Pokhran II; it was his persistent efforts to normalise ties with Pakistan. His bus yatra from Amritsar to Lahore was as audacious as it was imaginative. In Lahore, he made an appeal for Indians and Pakistanis to leave the past behind and embrace a future of friendship and cooperation. He ended reciting his own poem ‘Jang na hone denge…’ (We shall not let another war break out between India and Pakistan). There was thunderous applause. Tears rolled down the cheeks of an elderly Pakistani beside me. Vajpayee had conquered hearts and minds of people across the border, too.

The writer worked as a close aide to Vajpayee in the PMO

1984: At Mumbai after electoral debacle

Ambarish Mishra, When Vajpayee told Mumbai crowd: 'So many people to see a poll loser, August 17, 2018: The Times of India

BJP functionaries reminisced on AB Vajpayee’s close links with Mumbai since his stint as Jan Sangh leader

“Atalji made many key speeches in Mumbai,” recalled Atul Bhatkhalkar, BJP MLA from Kandivli. “Atalji’s speech as PM at Worli’s Jamboree maidan to mark Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s birth centenary was thought-provoking. He emphasised the need for social empowerment of Dalits and other weaker sections. He thus widened BJP’s social base,” said Bhatkhalkar.

For years, Vajpayee, when in Mumbai, stayed with Vedprakash Goyal at the latter’s Sion apartment. Old-timers remembered how a twenty-something Piyush, Vedprakash’s son and now Union minister, would be at Vajpayee’s beck and call, streamlining press interviews and keeping a check on visitors. Vajpayee was at his best, they said, at a meeting held at Shiva ji Park on December 24, 1984 to felicitate him on his 60th birthday. Not only had he lost the 1984 election, BJP could annex only two seats in Lok Sabha, thanks to a pro-Congress wave in the wake of the Indira assassination. Vajpayee stood up to address the meeting amid thunderous applause, paused for 10 seconds, took a close, hard look at the nearly choc-a-bloc Park and said, ‘Haara huwa Atal Bihari kaisa dikhta hai yeh dekhne ke liye itnee bheed’ (People have come in heavy numbers to see how a defeated Atal Bihari looks). More rounds of applause, and he added wryly: “Where were you all on the day of voting?”

Eleven years later, L K Advani publicly declared, at a BJP conclave at Shiva ji Park, Vajpayee as BJP’s prime ministerial nominee. A few months later, Vajpayee was sworn in as PM, although for 13 days. Also, it was at a Shiva ji Park conclave in 2009 that Vajpayee said he wished to hang up his sandals, and that Advani would lead the party, said state BJP spokesperson Madhav Bhandari.

Describing Vajpayee’s sense of humour as “delicious,” Ravindra Sathe of the Rambhau Mhalgi Prabodhini, an R S S think tank, recalled a meeting with Vajpayee in connection with a compilation of his nonpolitical speeches, poems and essays.

“A band of Prabodhini functionaries called on him in New Delhi in 2004. We showed him a copy of the book titled Raaj-Neeti Se Parey (Beyond Politics) which Prabodhini had published. He took a look at the cover and remarked, ‘Achcha, so you have already sent me off beyond politics’,” said Sathe.

Mukund Kulkarni, office secretary of the state BJP headquarters, spoke of Vajpayee’s two visits to the party office in the 1990s. “On both occasions Atalji spent two hours at the office, interacted with us and allowed party workers to take pictures with him. Asked if he’d have tea, he insisted on ‘garam, garam chai’,” said Kulkarni.

On a visit to the Prabodhini’s headquarters at Uttan in Bhayandar in 2003, Vajpayee planted amango sapling. A few years later, the Prabodhini sent him a hamper of mangoes. He called back to say: ‘Aam bahut ruchipurna hain (Mangoes are yummy),’ said Sathe.

Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray described the late BJP leader as “Bhishma Pita Maha after Balasaheb Thackeray.” Uddhav left for New Delhi in the evening to attend the late PM’s funeral on Friday. He is accompanied by his wife and sons, sources said.

Ideology, personal style

A master orator whose pauses spoke volumes, August 17, 2018: The Times of India

Vajpayee understood the virtues of moderation, of the soft touch, while not really compromising on the basics of the ideology he represented and advocated

In an age when binaries seem to define political and social identities, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was near impossible to straitjacket. He could disarmingly equate ‘Hindutva’ with ‘Bharatiyata’, as he did in an interview with TOI in 2004, or declare “Sangh is my soul” in R-S-S mouthpiece Organiser in 1995 or plainly iterate his credentials as a swayamsewak at an interaction in Staten Island in 2000 when he was Prime Minister.

In a life lived fully, Vajpayee never shied from grasping all that it had to offer, revelling in the company of poets, politicians and friends, tucking into a good meal with relish, sharing a joke with gusto and yet offering pithy and enigmatic one liners when cannily sensing restraint to be a better and wiser option.

What is evident is that he understood the virtues of moderation, of the soft touch, while not really compromising on the basics of the ideology he represented and advocated long before the Ayodhya movement when Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh was hardly mainstream and Congress seemed all but unshakeable. Aided by an inherent charisma, Vajpayee collected friends and admirers, many for life, as he progressed through a career largely spent in the opposition.

For all his sociable traits, the BJP veteran, India’s first truly non-Congress PM, could be reclusive, not close to many and capable of keeping his emotions to himself. Yet, he was fiercely loyal to those whose affections he commanded, backing them unflinchingly in adverse circumstances. If there was an instance of a leader who could manage and contain contradictions, it was Vajpayee.

He was sometimes seen as a dissenter in the Sangh Parivar. But for all his occasional run-ins with the Sangh, he had no hesitation in plainly acknowledging in his “resignation” speech in Lok Sabha in 1996 that BJP omitted the Ram temple from its agenda only as it lacked a majority. Some commentators, usually those critical of BJP, found it tempting to call him the “right man in the wrong party” even as others bitterly contested his ‘liberalism’ as a facade. He himself had no qualms about his association with R-S-S since childhood.

Vajpayee did have his differences with R-S-S as when he clashed with K S Sudarshan, the Sangh chief during his prime ministership. His advocacy of ‘Gandhian socialism’ in the 1980s was at odds with Sangh’s Hindutva-oriented thinking. Yet, he acquiesced to R-S-S overruling a key cabinet choice when he reluctantly set aside Jaswant Singh and appointed Yashwant Sinha as finance minister in 1998. An astute politician, he could adapt, dealing with allies and writing his “musings” on year-end holidays.

Vajpayee’s instinct for moderation did not mean he was a pacifist. He ordered the Pokhran II tests almost immediately after he became Prime Minister with a parliamentary majority in 1998 — a decision essential to test the reliability of India’s nuclear deterrent. There was strong dissent at home as Congress and Left criticised the tests while US threatened sanctions. But a few years later, US president Bill Clinton’s visit to India after the 1999 Kargil war signalled a correction in a historic ‘pro-Pakistan’ tilt. The India-US nuclear deal sealed by the UPA was a culmination of Pokhran II.

In a long political career, Vajpayee scored several firsts not associated with non-Congress PMs, often seen as birds of passage, products of fractious coalitions and, on occasion, supported by Congress. Vajpayee established BJP as the alternative pole in politics after Congress had argued, with some justification post the Janata experiment collapse in 1977-80, that its opponents simply lacked the ability and temperament to lead the nation. Vajpayee disproved this with the Pokhran tests and the Kargil war, where he showed steely determination to bear body counts even as his decision not to enlarge the conflict beyond the LoC proved crucial in winning international opinion. He unleashed India’s biggest peacetime mobilisation ‘Op Parakram’ after the attack on Parliament in 2001 that ended in Pakistan agreeing, for the first time, to prevent terror attacks launched from territory under its control. Though violated often, the agreement has been a basis for subsequent diplomacy. An instinctive reformer, he backed privatisation and promoted de-regulation.

His initiatives in J&K and attempts to normalise ties with Pakistan stand out. He surprised the foreign ministry establishment by reaching out to Pakistan with his “hand of friendship” speech in 2003 after nimbly sidestepping Pervez Musharraf’s ambush at the Agra talks in 2001.

After the saffron patriarch’s health deteriorated following a stroke in 2009, and he faded from public gaze, the decade-long UPA rule before Narendra Modi led BJP back to office dimmed Vajpayee’s tenure in popular memory. Many do not remember the eventful coalition Vajpayee led from 1998 to 2004 which included a dramatic ouster from office after losing a Lok Sabha trust motion by one vote in 1999, victory in the Kargil war and a triumphant return to office. Or his dexterous diplomacy, as when he avoided committing troops in Afghanistan; in fact, he stoked domestic opposition to the idea and leveraged it to say no to US. Or when he summed up the impending US war on Saddam Hussain, observing “mahashakti ko mahasaiyam dikhana chahihe (a superpower must display great restraint)”.

As PM, he deepened economic reforms and expanded India’s foreign policy footprint with partnerships with the US and Russia and made terrorism the focus of relations with Pakistan even while he pragmatically recognised the Islamic republic’s reality. His speech in Lahore and his comment at the Minar-e-Pakistan in 1999 made it clear that he saw the creation of Pakistan as irreversible and also felt its stability was in India’s interest.

Opponents often wondered at Vajpayee’s ‘sixth sense’ in politics, an instinct that made him sceptical of the decision to call early Lok Sabha polls in 2004. Though he was persuaded by senior colleagues that big wins in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in the winter of 2003 could be the launchpad for a national election, he was never quite convinced. It would have been better to have added an ally or two, he mulled in an interaction with TOI during the 2004 Lok Sabha campaign. Ironically enough, the decision to break with DMK for an ill-starred alliance with AIADMK, jettisoning AGP in Assam and snapping ties with INLD in Haryana contributed to BJP’s defeat along with a misplaced ‘India Shining’ campaign.

Vajpayee believed themes of progress and national pride could be sufficiently emotive, and he tended to de-emphasise the Ram temple agitation even as he was scathing in attacking ‘psuedo-secularism’. He was not in Ayodhya on the day Babri Masjid was demolished. Yet he made no secret of where his heart lay, once saying the opposition seemed “disappointed” at BJP excluding contentious issues to form coalitions. Asked about his views on conversions, he simply observed that conversions lead to re-conversions.

The 1996 ‘resignation speech’ was to be the basis of the BJP campaign two years later when Vajpayee, marketed as ‘the man India awaits’, won the election with a coalition that had the mercurial J Jayalalitha. The government got to a rocky start with AIADMK withholding its letter of support and ended with Amma bringing the government down. Pakistan’s sneak attack in Kargil turned things Vajpayee’s way as he responded with vigour and determination, committing Army troops to retake the heights. Vajpayee returned to office with a larger coalition, one in which no one partner held the government to ransom.

His mild manner could disguise a sharp sense of personal honour. He once responded to Sonia Gandhi’s campaign speech suggesting he had been untruthful, stating he had never lied in public life. He clashed with her in a Lok Sabha no-confidence vote discussion, referring to her denouncing his government as “insensitive, incompetent, corrupt” and having “betrayed the mandate” to tick off Sonia. “Is this your assessment of people who are working in the political sphere shoulder to shoulder with you?” he asked.

A master orator in Hindi, Vajpayee loved the big stage, using satire to drive home his point. He was an adept parliamentarian, once reading out taped conversations of H R Bhardwaj, a minister in the P V Narasimha Rao government, deriding cabinet senior Arjun Singh. Then again he defused a crisis caused by Ram Jethmalani’s resignation as law minister by simply saying that as PM, he had the prerogative to choose his ministers.

Vajpayee was at his best campaigning, striking a chord with audiences, who came to hear him even when BJP, and earlier Jan Sangh, did not win elections. It was his ‘X factor’, the ability to sway voters outside the core Hindu vote, that prompted L K Advani to declare him prime ministerial candidate. Vajpayee’s relationship with Advani had its downs, with differences — fanned by camp followers — spilling out in public. At the same time, it was Advani who had once picked the phone to instruct R-S-S that a damaging statement by its chief K S Sudarshan be withdrawn immediately.

Vajpayee came close to seeking Narendra Modi’s removal as Gujarat CM after the 2002 riots, only to be thwarted by a rebellion at the BJP national executive in Goa backed by Advani. Finding himself outnumbered, Vajpayee deferred to the majority opinion. As foreign minister in the Janata government, BJP president, leader of opposition and PM, Vajpayee made his mark as a leader of substance who could use a turn of phrase or a pause to speak volumes.

4 legacies

PM, Poet, Statesman, Gentleman, August 17, 2018: The Times of India

Saffron Star Was The First Non-Cong Prime Minister To Complete A Full Term

Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, 93, who led BJP to pathbreaking electoral victories, headed coalitions at the Centre from 1998 to 2004 and became the first non-Congress PM to complete a full term, passed away on Thursday after prolonged illness.

The end came at 5.05pm when All India Institute of Medical Sciences announced that Vajpayee had died despite all efforts to save him. Admitted to AIIMS on June 11, he could not be discharged in the last nine weeks. His condition deteriorated over the last 36 hours and he was on life support. The first PM who had never been a Congress member, he will be cremated at Rashtriya Smriti Sthal between Shanti Van and Vijay Ghat at 4pm on Friday. A memorial will be built, though its location is not yet decided.

The AIIMS statement came after PM Narendra Modi visited Vajpayee for the second time in 24 hours, amid indications that he was sliding. A diabetic, Vajpayee had one functioning kidney, and had lost much of his cognitive functions after a stroke in 2009. Later, he developed dementia.

Vajpayee was thrice elected PM, the first time briefly for 13 days in 1996. His trademark oratory, broad moderate appeal, commitment to economic reforms and right-of-centre politics saw him enlarge BJP’s electoral appeal beyond its core constituency. His success as PM, a tenure marked by the bold embrace of the US as a strategic partner, was instrumental in making BJP a major mainstream party and moved the Right to the centrestage as a popular alternative to Nehruvian socialism.

As foreign minister, Atal delivered speech in Hindi at UN

The brightest of saffron stars, Vajpayee, along with L K Advani, dominated BJP almost since its inception in 1980. The two were leading figures even in the erstwhile Jana Sangh. A lengthy political career saw him make a mark as foreign minister in the opposition ‘unity’ government of Janata Party in 1977-80, during which he delivered a speech in Hindi, the first such one by an Indian leader, at the United Nations.

Soon after the defeat and break-up of Janata Party over, among other things, the “dual loyalty” of those who had R-S-S links, Vajpayee became president of BJP and experimented with ‘Gandhian socialism’ before the party returned to its Hindutva roots with a fullthroated campaign for the Ram temple.

While Advani is seen as the architect of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, sharpening BJP’s attack on ‘pseudosecularism’, Vajpayee was often a counterfoil, presenting a more moderate face with a lesser emphasis on the Ayodhya movement. This, however, could be deceptive as he was critical of Congress’s “Muslim appeasement” and denounced the P V Narasimha Rao government’s decision to bring in a law freezing the status of all shrines as of August 15, 1947, barring those in Ayodhya, Mathura and Varanasi.

He called the demolition of Babri Masjid unfortunate, but insisted that it could have been avoided had the Congress government and non-BJP parties agreed to let construction work for the Ram temple begin on an adjoining plot.

As news of his deteriorating health spread, chief ministers of NDA-ruled states made a beeline to the capital and senior ministers visited AIIMS. After his passing, Vajpayee’s body was placed at his residence at Krishna Menon Marg. Public homage will be allowed between 7.30am and 8.30am on Friday. His body will then be taken to the BJP office at Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Marg at 9am. The last rites will be performed at 4pm. Seven-day state mourning has been announced.

A pall of gloom spread as the end appeared imminent after Vajpayee’s condition began to slip on Wednesday. Despite being out of the public gaze for several years, he had been a popular figure. Having enjoyed cordial relations with most of his political opponents, Vajpayee’s illness had seen several non-BJP leaders visiting AIIMS and inquiring about his health. Former cabinet colleagues like West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee and Bihar CM Nitish Kumar visited him in recent weeks.

Vajpayee, a bachelor, is survived by his adopted daughter Namita Kaul Bhattacharya. Hailing from the small village of Bateshwar near Agra, Vajpayee joined the R-S-S in 1947 and rose through the ranks as his oratory and charisma caught popular notice. He was elected to the Lok Sabha 10 times though he also lost a few elections. He was a Rajya Sabha member twice.

The Union cabinet met shortly after the official announcement to pass a resolution to condole Vajpayee’s death. In his tribute, BJP president Amit Shah said Vajpayee was a “rare politician, brilliant speaker, poet and patriot; his demise is not just an irreparable loss for the BJP but also for the entire country”. Congress president Rahul Gandhi tweeted, “Today, India lost a great son. Former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayeeji was loved and respected by millions. My condolences to his family and all his admirers. We will miss him.”

8 defining moments as PM

August 17, 2018: The Times of India

With then defence minister George Fernandes and Isro chief APJ Abdul Kalam at Pokhran
From: August 17, 2018: The Times of India
Crossing the Wagah border to Lahore on February 19, 1999
From: August 17, 2018: The Times of India

1 POKHRAN 2 (1998)


Carried out nuclear tests, stunned the world, defied subsequent US sanctions. Then announced a moratorium while dialogue was opened between foreign minister Jaswant Singh and US deputy state secretary Strobe Talbott that transformed India-US relations. Described India, US as ‘natural allies’, initiated hi-tech ties that culminated in 2005 India-US nuclear deal.

2 RIDE TO LAHORE (Feb 1999)


For the first time, India and Pakistan were connected by a direct bus service. Vajpayee travelled on that first bus. At Lahore’s Minar-e-Pakistan, Vajpayee wrote in the visitors’ book that India wanted Pakistan to be “sovereign and prosperous” — the first time an Indian leader had emphasised Pakistani sovereignty. Especially significant coming from him as R-S-S always said it wanted ‘Akhand Bharat’.

3 OP VIJAY (Jun-Jul 1999)


His govt’s compensation to families of Kargil martyrs and public funerals for ‘fallen soldiers’ put the idea of sacrifice on a pedestal. It led to US’s Bill Clinton summoning Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif to Washington DC, and virtually ordering him to withdraw troops. On a 6-hour visit to Islamabad later, Clinton famously said, “Borders cannot be redrawn with blood”.

4 IC-814 HIJACKING (Dec 1999)


Vajpayee released terrorists Maulana Masood Azhar, Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar and Omar Saeed Sheikh to secure release of passengers on the aircraft hijacked from Kathmandu and taken to Kandahar. Azhar went on to create Jaishe-Mohammed in Pakistan and Omar Sheikh murdered US journalist Daniel Pearl, besides being part of 9/11.

5 AGRA SUMMIT (Jul 2001)


Vajpayee and Musharraf met for two days in Agra to discuss reduction of nuclear arsenals, the Kashmir dispute and cross-border terrorism, but talks collapsed after Musharraf told Indian editors that Kashmir was the only issue, and India rejected the draft agreement.

6 GUJARAT RIOTS (Dec 2002)


Vajpayee chose not to dismiss Gujarat CM Narendra Modi for his handling of the riots with state administration accused of complicity in the anti-Muslim violence. The PM was criticised for his hesitation in reprimanding Modi. At a press conference in Ahmedabad, announcing rehabilitation for victims, Vajpayee said Modi should “follow his Rajdharma”.



Five terrorists from Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed stormed Parliament complex. 12 people, including terrorists, died. Vajpayee chose a tough political response over instant military action. Over 5 lakh troops were moved to the border, and fighter jets and naval ships readied to send out a message. Crossborder skirmishes continued for six months. The countries came to the brink of war twice, say experts. US finally intervened and got Musharraf to issue a statement that led to demobilisation.



Vajpayee and Musharraf met in Islamabad on the sidelines of a Saarc summit. For the first time, Musharraf officially committed to not allowing terrorists to use “territory under Pakistan’s control” to act against India. The discussions went down to the wire, with Vajpayee even threatening to return empty-handed.

5 major contributions

August 17, 2018: The Times of India

Lightening Loss-Making Load

Holding that “disinvestment/ privatisation is the only panacea for ills of lossmaking public sector undertakings”, he initiated the sale of stake in/ ownership of PSUs with the likes of VSNL, BALCO and Hindustan Zinc, Indian Petrochemicals Corporation either privatised or facing disinvestment

No Child To Be Left Behind

Operational since 2000-01, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan seeks universalisation of elementary education in a time-bound manner.

Vajpayee’s government brought in the 86th Amendment that inserted Article 21A, making free education for all children aged 6-14 a fundamental right. It became the basis for the UPA’s Right to Education Act of 2009. In 2017, SSA covered 192 million children

Hello, New India

The New Telecom Policy of 1999 set the platform for the explosive growth of the telecom industry. The decision to shift from a regime of committed licence fees to revenue sharing for private players was controversial at the time, but the sector truly took off. From barely a million mobile phone subscribers then to over a billion today, the growth has been mind-boggling

Bridging Bharat & India

Launched in 2001 with the vision to have a network of world class highways and roads, the Golden Quadrilateral project created a total length of 5,846km of four/six lane express highways connecting the four metros and passing through 13 states. He also started the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana in 2000, that has seen 5.6 lakh km of roads built so far

Tightening The Fiscal Belt

Governments in a democracy would always be tempted to splurge on populist schemes, never mind the fisc. So, Vajpayee government in 2000 moved on the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Bill that sought to commit governments to a roadmap for controlling deficits and preventing their borrowing from RBI except in unusual circumstances. Watered down by the time it became an Act in 2003, it remains a landmark first step on the road to fiscal discipline.

Coalition politics

NK SINGH, High Priest Of Coalition Dharma, August 17, 2018: The Times of India

Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee at a briefing with reporters
From: NK SINGH, High Priest Of Coalition Dharma, August 17, 2018: The Times of India

Vajpayee mainstreamed BJP using economic policies and reforms, FDI and highways projects for this massive image makeover

One was always in awe of his oratory and parliamentary skills.

In private chats and official conversations, Vajpayee had a sense of humour, sometimes at himself. A wisecrack would ease a tense atmosphere. He recognised early that parliamentary management and governance were not as much about winning arguments as about winning friends. That’s why he could manage a coalition of disparate parties while never losing focus on economic policies or politics.

P V Narasimha Rao walked away from nuclear tests, fearing international criticism. He was paranoid about what had happened in 1991 when international organisations pressured India. We, in the department of economic affairs, were asked to prepare a note on economic consequences of the tests during Rao’s time and Vajpayee’s term. But Vajpayee was fearless and initially there were hiccups but later, the Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott dialogue helped normalise relations with the US.

It was a shrewd calculation that the US would bark but not bite. Vajpayee felt the lure of a growing Indian market was attractive and forces of industry would prevent big powers from imposing sanctions. He backed this with progressive liberalisation with opening up of financial markets, FDI and the telecom sector.

He created the telecom revolution. He inherited a huge mess. His minister Jagmohan suggested invoking bank guarantees. He asked me what would happen and I told him companies would go bust, banks would take a hit but telecom would be set back by decades.

He had the vision to see telecom would be a launchpad. He took the risk, the telecom minister was changed and the SC agreed to revenue sharing. That’s how telecom companies were saved. There was a moral hazard but as long as the intent was clear — public good — he was willing to take the risk.

He is credited with the national highways programme, which he announced at an industry event. Three months later, he told me, “Arey maharaj, ghoshna to ho gayi hai ab thoda road bana bhi dijiye.” Money from cess was inadequate and a non-lapsable fund was created, which allowed for greater debt. He introduced Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, the beginning of the rural roads programme. Again, he went against conventional wisdom. He faced constant criticism of going too fast on liberalisation and FDI. A classic example was the view he took on FDI. I had prepared a report for the Planning Commission and when I took the draft to him, he told me to keep retail out. “Usme kathinai hogi, usko rehne dijiye,” he said, realising this could jeopardise larger goals. He did not see the Economic Advisory Council on trade and industry as a collegial drawing room club. He sent me to I G Patel because he was apprehensive that he (Patel) may not agree to head it, having turned down an offer to become a minister. IG happily accepted.

Once he invited diaspora in telecom and technology such as Kanwal Rekhi, Vinod Khosla and Sabeer Bhatia and asked for inputs. One of them suggested a ministry and Vajpayee had a laugh and said, “Let’s keep the ministry away.” But he ensured all ideas were reflected in the policy.

More often than not, carrying your own people is more difficult than dealing with outsiders. He tried to balance contradictions but never gave up on the objective, which was greater competition, greater productivity, greater opening up of the economy. He mainstreamed BJP. Economic policies had a big role to play in this image makeover.

The economy under ABV

The economy under PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee
From: August 17, 2018: The Times of India

See graphic:

The economy under PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee

In 1979, Vajpayee opposed nuclear tests

S S-talks-sonias-shah-bano-red-flag-raos-temple-wis-8867038 An extract from Neerja Chowdhury’s book How Prime Ministers Decide , Aleph, 2023

In May 1998, India successfully conducted nuclear tests in Pokhran, a crowning glory of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s premiership. But way back in 1979, when he was External Affairs Minister in the Morarji Desai cabinet, Vajpayee had opposed testing.

In April 1979, Desai had a meeting with his top four ministers Defence Minister Jagjivan Ram, Finance Minister Charan Singh, Home Minister H M Patel and Vajpayee. Desai informed them that Pakistan was on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons and wanted to discuss with them what the government should do about its nuclear programme.

A secret report submitted to Desai by K. Subrahmanyam, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, had alarmed Desai. Subrahmanyam had stated that Pakistan ‘was only a screwdriver away from a bomb’. Besides the ministers, there were only two officials present at the CCPA meeting Atomic Energy Commission chairman Homi Sethna and Cabinet Secretary Nirmal Mukherji.

While the top ministers resolved that India should proceed with its nuclear efforts, the decision was not unanimous. “Subrahmanyam confirmed to me later that ‘Morarji and Vajpayee were opposed to going ahead. H. M. Patel, Jagjivan Ram, and Charan Singh were for it.” the book says.

“A day after the CCPA meeting, Subrahmanyam confronted Vajpayee. ‘How could you oppose it?’ he asked Vajpayee. ‘You have been for it all along.’ ‘No, no, now the most important thing is to stop Pakistan from making the bomb,’ Vajpayee replied defensively. ‘And we should not provoke them.’” it says.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee congratulated the Indian Scientists and engineer at a Press conference in New Delhi soon after India successfully conducted three underground nuclear tests in Pokhran range.

All the same, in 1999 India asserted itself as a nuclear power

SHAKTI SINHA, Atal-led India asserted itself as responsible nuclear power, August 17, 2018: The Times of India

It was early evening on April 17, 1999, when the counting of votes in the confidence motion moved by Atal Bihari Vajpayee ended. We had been holed up inside his room for over two days, watching heated exchanges between the treasury benches and the opposition. After the hour-long voting process, Speaker G M C Balayogi announced that the Vajpayee government had fallen by one vote. I remember Vajpayee emerge from the House looking shocked and stricken. It was a verdict he did not expect.

He had known there would be difficulties. Leaders had been talking to each other and there was an understanding this was still “open-ended” and the verdict could be in our favour. I was in his room when he had telephoned BSP chief Kanshiram and sought his support. Kanshiram had refused to back Vajpayee, but he had also conveyed to him that BSP’s five MPs would abstain from voting.

On D-day, however, the BSP MPs not only showed up but they voted against the government. Saifuddin Soz of National Congress, which had pledged its support, turned rogue and voted against the government. Congress’s Odisha CM Giridhar Gamang, who had still not resigned his membership of Lok Sabha, also showed up to vote. The net result was for all to see.

Vajpayee recovered quickly. A few hours after the vote, the now ‘former’ PM had recovered his composure. The week that followed saw much political drama. Sonia Gandhi claimed to have the numbers but Kanshiram, once again, did not concur.

A few days later, word about Pakistan infiltrating into Kargil came in. This was another shock. The first official briefing to the PM could not indicate the seriousness of the situation. It was reported simply as “some movement of Pakistan inside the Line of Control”. It was only after General V P Malik, away in Poland on an official tour, returned and assessed the situation that India began its preparations to retaliate in right earnest. Under Vajpayee’s watch, Gen Malik ordered full mobilisation of troops.

India was clear it had no option but to safeguard its territory. Vajpayee sought at least one briefing on the ground situation every day. When Indian fighter planes began operations, he also sought video footage. But the line was clearly drawn. India would defend its territory on the LoC and push back aggressors but would not enter Pakistani airspace.

In Vajpayee’s mind, withdrawing from the field or letting Pakistan hold on to Indian territory was out of the question. Eventually, the Americans understood. Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif was summoned to Washington on July 4 after the Indians gained the upper hand. Sharif was told in no uncertain terms that Pakistan must return to their side of the LoC. Vajpayee established that India and Pakistan should not be clubbed.

If there was an article of faith for Vajpayee, it was to see India assert itself as a responsible nuclear power. When he assumed office in 1998, he ordered the Pokhran tests There was great secrecy around the preparations, and camouflage nets were thrown over the drilling site. India’s preparations were not detected.

When the Pokhran mission was accomplished, it was with great satisfaction and pride that India wrote to world leaders explaining the need for the tests. Contrary to what the west projected — India and Pakistan as reckless nuclear powers — India asserted that it was the growing influence and aggression of China that had led to the tests. China, at that time, made aggressive inroads into Indian territory in the east.

Computer savvy in 1999

Pankaj Shah, Back in 1999, he was only UP candidate with interactive site, August 18, 2018: The Times of India

It’s almost impossible to find an election candidate today who does not have a full-scale social media presence. But about 20 years ago, when internet was still in its nascent stages, then PM and BJP’s face from Lucknow, A B Vajpayee, in the 1999 LS polls was the only candidate in UP to have an interactive website.

The website,, was created to garner support from voters for Vajpayee, who faced Dr Karan Singh of Congress in the election. And when the website was launched on July 27, 1999, the then spokesperson and incumbent PM Modi was also present at the UP BJP office.

Entrepreneur Manish Khemka, who got the website created, recalls that they wanted Modi to launch it. But Vajpayee insisted on a ‘more popular’ face. “Just then we got to know about arrival of cinestar Vinod Khanna in Lucknow. We immediately contacted him and he readily agreed,” Khemka told TOI.

A lease line internet connection was taken at the state BJP office to support the website and another at the residence of then cabinet minister Om Prakash Singh.

Foreign policy

Vajpayee reset Indo-US ties

Rajeev Deshpande, Vajpayee shed the Cold War paradigm, reset Indo-US ties, August 19, 2018: The Times of India

Grasping the need to engage with the US and junk cold war premises, Atal Bihari Vajpayee pursued deeper ties with Washington, helped by Pakistan’s adventurism in Kargil and a solid win in the 1999 elections, despite the initial bad blood over the Pokhran-II nuclear tests.

In doing so, the former PM who received a state funeral on Friday, looked to both negotiate from a position of strength by declaring India a de facto nuclear power even at the risk of sanctions, and simultaneously looking beyond fears of loss of economic “sovereignty” and political non-alignment.

Some of the arguments came from Sangh outfits that viewed liberalisation with suspicion and believed America had designs on India. But looking to recast relations with the US and seeing the two countries as “natural allies” was not out of sync with shifts in BJP’s economic thinking that began to embrace globalisation in the mid-90s.

Vajpayee’s views were strongly endorsed and even influenced by his close associate Brajesh Mishra who was also his powerful principal secretary through out Vajpayee’s prime ministership. As it happened, the Pokhran tests led to a more pragmatic understanding of India’s nuclear deterrent and a recognition of the need to engage with a stable regional power moving away from its socialist past.

The recognition of India’s security needs was deepened by Pakistan dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf’s ill-considered military gambit in Kargil. Vajpayee’s restraint in not expanding the conflict beyond the Line of Control and the hard won victories on the ground convinced then US president Bill Clinton to get Pakistan to withdraw.

Clinton gently underlined the US role in his address to the Indian Parliament when he said while India was to settle its disputes bilaterally, America could occasionally, as during the Kargil war, intervene to persuade Pakistan to pull back. But importantly, he emphasised that the LoC had to be respected.

Vajpayee dealing with Pakistan also increasingly zeroed in on its preparedness to deal with terrorism aimed at India. Possibly the fiasco at the 2001 Agra Summit where talks ended in acrimony as Musharraf right away sought to settle Kashmir brought out the limitations of any “peace” initiative. The terrorists-for-hostage swap at Kandahar earlier also drove home some realities.

In the end, Vajpayee insisted on a direct commitment from Pakistan on containing terrorism in his last interaction with Musharraf in January, 2004. His successor Manmohan Singh felt economic interests could foster ties, with limited results.PM Narendra Modi has reverted to a focus on terrorism after initial failed overtures in a furtherance of what Vajpayee finally came around to believe.

Nehru and ABV


Sourav Roy Barman, May 12, 2023: The Indian Express

The Ascent of the Hindu Right 1924-1977' talks of BJP leader's support for Nehru during 1962 war and his admiration as a young man for the latter, but debunks that Nehru ever saw him as future PM

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the country’s first prime minister from the R S S and Jana Sangh background, was dubbed a “Nehruite” during the Sino-Indian conflict in 1962, according to a new biography of the BJP’s iconic face.

In his book, “Vajpayee – The Ascent of the Hindu Right 1924-1977”, author Abhishek Choudhary writes that Acharya J B Kripalini, unhappy with Vajpayee’s refusal to call for Nehru’s resignation as the PM in the wake of the China-India war, made this jibe at a rally.

“Irked, Kripalini declared Vajpayee to be a Nehruvian in Jan Sanghi garb. At a rally held by the non-communist opposition on November 7, 1962, Kripalini warned the Swatantra Party leader Minoo Masani: ‘Don’t trust that man, he is essentially a Nehruite, and not one of us’,” says the book, published by Pan Macmillan India, which charts Vajpayee’s early years in parliamentary politics.

However, the author adds that Kripalini’s remark was born out of “prejudice” as Vajpayee’s differences with other Opposition leaders on this question were more “semantic rather than qualitative”. “Vajpayee simply felt that to ask Nehru to resign – in the middle of a war, and only six months after he had been returned to office with a two-thirds majority – was a fatuous, impractical proposition,” notes the author.

The book is however also replete with accounts showing a young Vajpayee’s quiet admiration for Nehru, especially in its chapter titled “Beloved Nemesis: The Nehru Years”.

On his part, Nehru, who was 68 years old when Vajpayee first got elected to the Parliament as a nominee of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), the BJP’s erstwhile avatar, at the age of 32, was not dismissive of the young MP, who he thought was a “likeable, bright young man in an otherwise regressive party”.

However, Nehru never prophesied a prime ministership for Vajpayee, Choudhary writes, seeking to debunk this claim made by many in the past. His book points out that Vajpayee managed to elicit a response from Nehru, albeit a stinging one, soon after he entered the Lok Sabha for the first time in 1957 by winning from the Balrampur seat (now scrapped) in Uttar Pradesh.

In his first Lok Sabha speech on May 15 that year, Vajpayee criticised Nehru on many counts, including on the latter’s Kashmir policy. “Would we liberate one-third of Kashmir by sending the army? No no. Would we gift it away to Pakistan? No no…Would we take police action in Goa? No no. Would we then permit a satyagraha there by our people? No no. Would we leave Goa to Portugal’s mercies? No no,” the book quotes Vajpayee as having said in his speech as Nehru listened silently.

The next day, in his response, Nehru referred to Vajpayee as a “’new netaji from our opposition party’ who was good only at churning out platitudes”. “Unke hathiyar mujhe zara baazaru maalum hue…Election still bears heavy on his mind, it seemed he thinks of the Lok Sabha too as an election meeting,” Nehru quipped.

The book says that PM Nehru got Vajpayee included in a list of the Indian delegates for the United Nations General Assembly session in 1960. At that time, Vajpayee was headed to the United States, in his first foreign trip, on the invitation of the US government to be present as an observer during the then presidential polls in which Democrat John F Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon were locked in a contest.

During his stay in New York, Vajpayee was mostly in the company of a foreign service officer posted in the permanent mission of India to the UN, M K Rasgotra, who would later go on to serve as India’s foreign secretary. Rasgotra, who was instructed by Nehru’s office to introduce the first-time visitor to leaders from all continents so that he “gets a sense of how the real world works”, told the author that he felt Vajpayee had “very high regard for Panditji” and there was “quietly a relationship, sort of, building up between the two”.

Both in their early thirties then, Rasgotra and Vajpayee also shared some light camaraderie during the trip, as the young diplomat took the first-time MP to museums and art galleries, which “did not evoke any great interest” in Vajpayee, as well as nightclubs.

“It was not clear to Vajpayee what a nightclub was exactly. Rasgotra assured him that it was not a strip club: ‘Nagn nritya nahin hota hai. You would get to see what shape modern music is taking – there is jazz, instrumental, local music.’ Vajpayee got excited: ‘Chaliye, ye bhi ek nayi duniya hai.’ On such informal outings he drank a peg or two. But there were real limits to how informal Vajpayee could get with his companion. He did not confide in Rasgotra about the ongoing tumult in his private life,” states the book.


Abhishek Choudhary, June 15, 2023: The Times of India

A new book, Vajpayee : The Ascent of the Hindu Right 1924-1977 , reveals how Jan Sangh leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s frequent visits to Jammu and Kashmir and his speeches in Parliament seeking revocation of Article 370 had angered Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. However, eventually, as their acquaintanceship grew, they came to admire each other. Nehru appreciated Vajpayee’s “constructive criticism” of his foreign policy. Vajpayee liked the fact that Nehru did not only crave praise. An excerpt from the book.

For a while, Nehru mostly ignored the young Jan Sanghi as a minor nuisance. But some things were unpardonable. Vajpayee occasionally travelled to Jammu and nearby areas in the Valley, and returned to make passionate pleas in Parliament to revoke Article 370.

In mid-February 1958 Pir Maqbool Gilani, a key aide of Sheikh Abdullah, met and complained to the prime minister that he and other Kashmiris were not being given a permit to enter their home state by the Bakshi government, even as trigger-happy Jan Sanghis like Vajpayee “are allowed to go to Jammu and deliver objectionable speeches”.

Nehru immediately shot off a letter to Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad: Vajpayee was “a highly objectionable person” capable of creating “much mischief in Jammu and upset, thereby, the policy that you are following”.

That day he also separately wrote to cabinet secretary Vishnu Sahay, asking him to ensure that the Jan Sanghi was in future denied permission to visit the Himalayan state: “I do not like men like Vajpayee being allowed free entry.”

The animosity between the two began to melt, at first inconspicuously, in the second year. This became apparent during a discussion on the international situation in mid-August 1958. While Vajpayee praised Nehru’s overall steering of the country’s foreign policy, he also mildly chided the prime minister for entangling himself unnecessarily in international events which had no direct repercussions for India:

We may like to keep ourselves isolated but events would take us in the grip. However, the question is whether we can discuss in some details the policy of keeping ourselves actually aloof from the disputes of other countries. 
One requires a voice to speak, but to keep quiet one requires both voice and wisdom. In the international sphere we have developed a tendency of speaking a little more than necessary, and it is my submission that we should practice the art of keeping quiet. 
 A coup in Baghdad

Vajpayee was referring to the recent coup in Iraq, which had overthrown the country’s US-backed monarchy. Suspecting a Soviet conspiracy, the western powers dispatched marines and troops to the area.

Nehru felt annoyed to see the US and Britain “misread the situation”. By thinking of developments “solely in terms of communism and anti-communism”, the Western powers had ignored the feelings of the Iraqi masses.
Nehru warned them against intervening in Iraq, even as he agreed to the Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev’s suggestion of an immediate meeting between the premiers of the US, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and India, along with the secretary-general of the United Nations.

The reaction of the Western countries was less than favourable; the meeting was shelved, and the issue was referred to the General Assembly.

Vajpayee felt that Nehru’s haste to intervene created an impression that the Russians liked India, while the Americans did not: “In short, Russia, in her Cold War, made us a pawn in her publicity fight and we allowed ourselves to be used.”
 To his credit, the prime minister did not take offence at being lectured on international relations by a first-term MP [member of Parliament] who did not yet hold a passport. Of late, Nehru had himself been wondering whether being “a crusader on the world stage” was taking too much of his time and attention away from the dire economic situation at home.
 He thanked Vajpayee for acknowledging that India’s foreign policy was on the right track, adding that he was in “complete agreement” on the need to keep quiet unless India’s interests were involved.

At the same time, Nehru clarified that he was forced to intervene immediately as both sides were psyched for a confrontation in Iraq: “All the strategic plans were already there and the armies knew that they had to move from here to there to destroy a particular city and drop atom bombs at such and such place.”

Tolerance personified

With personal acquaintance, Vajpayee’s respect for the prime minister had grown. He noticed that despite the occasional fits of temper Nehru displayed in Parliament, he was amazingly tolerant and unjudgmental towards opposition members.
 For his part, Nehru did not mind receiving occasional praise and constructive advice from an adversary who was otherwise always gunning for him; the prime minister could also use the acquaintanceship to build bridges with this insignificant but most vocal of opposition parties.

Nehru was beginning to think of Vajpayee as a likeable, bright young man in an otherwise regressive party. While they continued to bicker inside and outside Parliament over matters big and small, personally they continued to be warm.

By the end of his second year in Parliament, Vajpayee had stretched his limits as the leader of the four-member Jan Sangh. With time he had realised that the speech-making that impressed the crowd at party gatherings was less effective in the business of law-making.

He had improved himself: his speeches now had a rhythm that Parliament demanded — more pointed and coercive, desperate for immediate attention. But days of research on a subject, followed by patiently sitting all day — in the fourth or fifth row, with three other colleagues — awaiting his turn, depressed him.

Sometimes, within the allotted time limit for a debate, his turn just didn’t come. On others, when he got a chance to speak, his words would not influence the government’s decision.

Some mornings he woke up and scanned the newspapers only to find that there was no mention at all of his speech that had been heard with attention in Parliament the previous day. Was he slogging away in a vacuum?

Excerpted with permission of Pan Macmillan from India from Vajpayee: The Ascent of the Hindu Right 1924-1977.

Senior leaders’ recollections

Pranab Mukherjee recalls Mr Vajpayee

Pranab Mukherjee, When Atal said: Pranabda, it’s your baby, why not support it?, August 17, 2018: The Times of India

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a very visible presence in Indian politics for six decades, entering Parliament in 1957 and continuing till 2009. He was part of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh since it was founded by Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee in 1951, and watched it grow in strength. Since the fourth Lok Sabha in 1967, Vajpayee acted as leader of the opposition, despite the fact that no party was recognised as an opposition party from 1952 to 1977 as they didn’t have the minimum number of members, which is a tenth of the total strength of the House.

Vajpayee was an excellent parliamentarian and an able administrator. He was the first to provide leadership to an effective coalition government six years from 1998 to 2004. Though the first NDA government collapsed in less than two years, it was re-elected in Sep-Oct 1998 and he led the government for full term successfully. Though BJP was defeated in the 2004 general elections, it won only seven seats fewer than the ruling Congress, which had 145.

A strident yet reasoned voice in the opposition, Vajpayee remained a consensus seeker while successfully heading the first coalition government for a full term. Despite the limitations of a coalition, he deftly managed to navigate issues in Kashmir, talks with Pakistan and a nuclear test in Pokhran.

As Prime Minister, Vajpayee carried on the economic reform process begun by P V Narasimha Rao and Dr Manmohan Singh in 1991, and ensured steady growth of the Indian economy at an average rate of 6% per annum. I remember an instance that shows his spirit of cooperation with the opposition. As commerce minister in P V Narasimha Rao’s cabinet in 1995, I had signed an agreement to set up the World Trade Organisation (WTO). As per the agreement, we were to amend the Patents Act to allow product patents. We couldn’t get the bill passed in Rajya Sabha due to opposition from the Left and BJP. Twice, we brought the bill but could not amend the law within the stipulated five years. As a result, a complaint was made against India in the WTO dispute settlement mechanism. Meanwhile, the government had changed at the Centre. Murasoli Maran, commerce minister in Vajpayee’s cabinet, moved the amendment again.

Vajpayee spoke to Dr Singh, leader of the opposition in Rajya Sabha, to have the bill passed. He jokingly told me, ‘Pranab da it is your baby, why don’t you support it?’ We discussed it with Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who told us to explain the amendment to members of both Houses. At a Congress parliamentary party meeting, I spent two hours explaining why we needed WTO and the amendment to the Patent Act. We should not lose the WTO founding-member status, which we had got in 1995 under a Congress government, I told them. I pointed out that there were only two differences between the old bill I moved and the new: One, the year, and two, the name of the member-incharge had been changed from Pranab Mukherjee to Murasoli Maran. There was no change in the text of the bill. When the bill was passed, Vajpayee called and thanked me.

Another incident demonstrates his ability to work across both sides. He has mentioned it in the House. When Parliament was attacked by terrorists on December 13, 2001, Sonia Gandhi was not in the House but rang Prime Minister Vajpayee to inquire about his well-being. Referring to this, Vajpayee said Indian democracy was secure when the leader of the opposition expressed anxiety for the well-being of the Prime Minister during a crisis. Such was the magnanimity of Vajpayee.

A democrat to the core, Vajpayee followed and personified the great traditions established by his illustrious predecessors, especially Jawaharlal Nehru.

Narendra Modi reminisces

Narendra Modi, A Leader For The Ages, He Was Ahead Of The Times, August 17, 2018: The Times of India

In times of turbulence and disruption, a nation is blessed to have a leader who rises to become its moral compass and guiding spirit, providing vision, cohesion and direction to his people. And, in such a moment at the turn of the century, India found one in Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was gifted in spirit, heart and mind.

For those of us who knew him, he was, first, the rarest of human beings, who touched and inspired everyone he met. He was compassionate to the core, generous in spirit, warm beyond measure and kind to a fault. He was deeply respectful of others and gifted with a rare sense of humour that he often turned upon himself.

Orator without parallel, he could switch from disarming humour to a lofty vision with ease, with a rare ability to connect with people naturally, to stir them to self-belief and to a higher cause. Sharply perceptive, he could summarize the most complex issues and discussions in a single sentence or question.

Born into a family of modest means and high ideals, he hailed from a small town in MP. His youth was defined by academic excellence and quest for public service during the gathering momentum of freedom struggle. Starting as an ordinary Karyakarta in the Jana Sangh, he organized the only truly national-level party to be formed in independent India – the BJP – and helmed its organization work after the passing away of Shri Syama Prasad Mookerjee and Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya.

Through the four decades of leadership in Parliament, the struggle against Emergency (who can forget that memorable rally in Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan when his speech became the roar of the nation), the clarity to represent his party with passion but always speak for the nation, he defined the spirit of democracy in India. Firm in his political beliefs, but always accommodating and respectful of other points of view, he set the standards of debate in Parliament. In his simplicity and integrity, in his dignity and empathy, and a sense of personal non-attachment to the office, he became an inspiration for a nation of youth.

He rescued the economy from the morass of the mid-1990s, when political instability at home and an uncertain global environment had threatened to derail a still incipient economic reforms process. He sowed the seeds of much of the economic success that we have experienced over the past two decades. For him, growth was a means to empower the weakest and mainstream the marginalized. It’s that vision that continues to drive our government’s policy.

It was Atalji who prepared the foundations of an India that is ready to take on the mantle of global leadership in the 21st century. The futuristic economic policies and reforms of his government ensured prosperity for several Indians. His thrust on next-generation infrastructure particularly roads and telecom contributed to our country’s economic as well as social empowerment.

Atalji irreversibly changed India’s place in the world. He overcame the hesitation of our nation, the resistance of the world and threat of isolation to make India a nuclear weapons power. It was not a decision he took lightly, but one he knew was of paramount importance in the face of mounting challenges to India’s security. No longer would India’s security be vulnerable. At that moment of surge in national pride, his was a voice of restraint and responsibility. And, the world listened to the wisdom of the man of peace. Equally important, he then brought to bear his extraordinary understanding of world affairs and formidable diplomatic skills to gain global acceptance of new realities. Indeed, it is the combination of his legacies of creating strategic capabilities, promoting stronger economic growth, undertaking multi-directional diplomacy and harnessing of diaspora energies that is today the basis for the respect we command across the world.

He transformed five decades of estrangement with USA into an enduring strategic partnership in the course of five years. He also steered India to deep friendship with a new post-Soviet Russia through a strategic partnership in 2000. I had the privilege of accompanying him on a visit to Russia in November 2001when we concluded a sister province agreement between Gujarat and Astrakhan.

With China, he made the boldest move for peace in an effort to overcome the burdens of a difficult past by establishing the mechanism of Special Representatives for boundary talks. Atal Ji’s conviction that these two ancient civilisations - which are rising powers - can work together to shape the global future continues to guide my thinking.

A person of grassroots, our neighbours were his priority. In many ways, he was the inspiration for, and even pioneer of, our Neighbourhood First policy. He was unwavering in his support as an opposition leader towards Bangladesh’s liberation. He went to Lahore in search of peace. With persistence and optimism that was his nature, he continued to search for peace and heal the wounds in J&K. But, he was resolute in winning the Kargil War. And, when our Parliament was struck, he made the world recognize the true nature and source of cross-border terrorism against India.

Personally, Atalji was an ideal, a guru, and role model who inspired me deeply. It was he who entrusted me with responsibilities both in Gujarat as well as at the national level. It was he who called me one evening in October 2001, and told me to go to Gujarat as the chief minister. When I told him that I had always worked in the organization, he said he was confident I would fulfill the people’s expectations. The faith he had in me was humbling.

Today, we are a self-assured nation, brimming with the energy of our youth and resolve of our people, eager for change and confident of achieving it, striving for clean and responsive governance, building future of inclusion and opportunity for all Indians. We engage the world as equals and in peace, and we speak for principles and support the aspirations of others. We are on the path that Atalji wanted us to take. He was ahead of the times, because he had a deep sense of history, and he could peer into the soul of India from his grasp of our civilizational ethos.

A life is to be judged not just by the extent of grief that follows when its light goes out. It is also to be measured by the lasting impact on the lives of people and the course of time. For that reason, Atalji was a true Ratna of Bharat. His spirit will continue to guide us as we build the New India of his dreams.

Yashwant Sinha recalls his mentor

Yashwant Sinha, August 17, 2018: The Times of India

He was the greatest Indian of our time. I had the good fortune of working with him in government and party. I worked closely with him and he gave me his love, affection and guidance. We were able to achieve important goals because of his understanding of issues and guidance both in the ministry of finance as well as external affairs. We were able to launch many original programmes that altered the quality of governance and our foreign relations. His death is an irreparable loss.

I can remember many things but the most significant event I recall is the day he called me early May 1998 to say that government had decided to conduct nuclear tests. He told me it will have huge political and economic fallout and asked me to prepare to meet economic challenges. I could not share this with anyone and kept churning ideas in my mind. Ultimately, we met the challenges. Atalji told me we will not bend in front of any foreign government and meet the challenges and that’s what we did.

Hardeep Puri: How ABV was seen abroad

Hardeep Puri, August 17, 2018: The Times of India

Vajpayee with LK Advani, Ram Jethmalani and Nanaji Deshmukh in New Delhi on April 6, 1980, the day he announced formation of Bharatiya Janata Party with members from the erstwhile Bharatiya Jana Sangh, one of the constituents of the Janata Party
From: Hardeep Puri, August 17, 2018: The Times of India

I first met Atal Bihari Vajpayee as a young student in Delhi University. My friend, the late Ashok Saikia, who later served in the PMO, was a family friend of Vajpayee. He introduced me to the young, debonair and fast-rising star in Jana Sangh: Vajpayee, a poet and a statesman.

During those days, it was possible to spot Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani catching an evening movie at Connaught Place.

It was his leadership qualities that reverberated amongst us college students during the dark days of the Emergency. It was ironic that curtailing and quashing of civil liberties was celebrated in many circles, including at Delhi University. When politics had sunk to a new low, it was Vajpayee and many like him who stood tall, encouraging students to defend our democratic ideals.

My next encounter with Vajpayee was in 1978, when I was a young Foreign Service officer in Tokyo, and he on a visit as minister of external affairs.

A year before, speaking at the UN General Assembly in September 1977, Vajpayee had delivered a memorable speech, parts of which still resonate: “Our success and failure should be measured by one metric alone: whether we are able to achieve justice and prosperity for humankind — for each man, woman and child.”

He was a firm believer in and supporter of the multilateral system anchored in the UN and famously said: “There was an implicit conviction that the UN would be stronger than the sum of its constituent member-states.” Yet he was realistic: “In the euphoria after the Cold War, there was a misplaced notion that the UN could solve every problem anywhere.”

His wit and charm captured the imagination of a young, aspirational India, looking to the new millennium for peace and prosperity. On the domestic front, he chose to anchor BJP’s ethos in Gandhian ideals, stating: “For the Bharatiya Janata Party, Gandhian socialism is what we want to achieve and make society free of exploitation and full of opportunities.”

I had the privilege of serving in the external affairs ministry and as deputy high commissioner in London when he was Prime Minister. He laid the foundation of our nuclear arsenal. A few PMs before Vajpayee had made similar attempts, but it was only under Vajpayee’s leadership that we were able to keep our cards close to our chest, not letting out a whisper. A man known for oratory had earn ed the trust of a select few scientists and government officers, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Even as he made India go nuclear, his statesmanship ensured India and Pakistan enjoyed perhaps their best relations since the two nations became independent. The sight of an Indian prime minister embarking on a bus yatra from Delhi to Lahore will remain etched in our memories. His charisma and poetry had an instant impact on both sides of the border — families separated during Partition were in tears at his warmth.

On the domestic economy front, Vajpayee’s achievements have stood the test of time. He ushered in India’s telecom revolution; disinvested public sector companies; envisioned the Golden Quadrilateral to connect India’s largest metropolises; and rationalised taxation in the country, which unleashed the animal spirit of India’s entrepreneurs. In a sense, Vajpayee laid the foundation for ‘sabka saath sabka vikas’ of the Modi-led government. It was to recognise this that the current NDA government termed December 25, the birth anniversary of Vajpayee, Good Governance Day.

Political observers have used various terms to describe Vajpayee: ‘statesman’ is perhaps the most commonly used to describe him. But for members of the Bhartiya Janata Party, he was more — a father figure whose ideals we seek to follow. Each of us, in our own way, is attempting to build on his vision of India — a nation with a deep civilizational past, and a young, modern republic, rooted in constitutional democracy. Vajpayee for us will remain the guiding light in these efforts and we in turn will seek to make him proud of our achievements.

The statesman

National security above political gain

January 11, 2021: The Times of India

Atal didn’t make issue of Rao govt’s Sukhoi advance: Book

‘Vajpayee Thought Govt Move Was In India’s Interests’

New Delhi:

The late Atal Bihari Vajpayee decided against raising a decision taken by the caretaker Narasimha Rao government to give an unusual $350 million advance to the Russian manufacturers of Sukhoi fighters as he considered the acquisition to be in India’s security interests, says a latest book on the former PM.

“Vajpayee — The Years That Changed India”, written by former IAS officer Shakti Sinha who worked with the late leader in opposition and also in office, recounts that the advance for the military aircraft had initially seemed like a scam. But Vajpayee wanted to know more and it transpired that the advance was needed to keep the Sukhoi manufacturing unit afloat. Then Russian President Boris Yeltsin sought the advance as the country’s economy was facing a rough patch.

Vajpayee decided not to raise the issue in the 1996 LS campaign, writes Sinha, as he felt that India’s security needs would be compromised. As things turned out Rao, who had taken a controversial but correct decision, lost poll and the deal was completed by SP member Mulayam Singh Yadav who became defence minister in the United Front government.

“Though too many details were not known at the time, Vajpayee didn’t use this point about an unusual advance in his poll campaign,” the book says, offering a contrast over political battles waged over recent defence deals.

Sinha writes that Vajpayee complimented Yadav in Parliament and his words of praise took some BJP members by surprise. Later, Yadav arranged a briefing for Vajpayee and senior BJP member Jaswant Singh explaining the circumstances of the military contract. Vajpayee wanted to signal domestic consensus on major security issues, particularly as regards Russia which was a major supporter of India in international forums and supplied most of its military imports. Written by an insider, the book sets out details on political developments that led to Vajpayee becoming PM in 1998 and the sensitive negotiations with AIADMK’s J Jayalalitha whose visit was preceded by a discussion on serving coconut water rather than tea. Sinha also sets out details of how she rocked and brought down the government over BJP’s inability to dismiss the DMK regime.

As per the book, contrary to popular perception, Vajpayee was not all that much of an extempore speaker and worked hard on his major speeches. He also rebuts the “right man in the wrong party” label for Vajpayee, noting that Vajpayee might have differed with BJP on occasions but remained loyal to the Sangh cause. He was steeped in Hindu cultural traditions in his upbringing. 

Rajkumari Kaul

Vinay Sitapati on ABV and Mrs Kaul

November 22, 2020: The Times of India

When the Vajpayee ‘parivar’ made the Parivar uneasy

In a new book, political scientist and author Vinay Sitapati traces not only Atal’s jugalbandi with Advani but also the ‘high command’ at home who shaped his life

Soon after he became a Lok Sabha MP, Vajpayee was invited to Ramjas College to give a talk. Present in the audience was a middle-aged philosophy professor, Brij Nath Kaul, along with his younger wife, Rajkumari. Rajkumari and Vajpayee had been classmates in Gwalior in 1941, but the attraction had fizzled and they had lost touch for the next sixteen years. The Ramjas talk rekindled the flame. From then on—and through the 1960s—the Kauls and Vajpayee were constantly in each other’s homes. When B.N. Kaul became warden of Ramjas hostel, students would know that Vajpayee was visiting by an official black Ambassador car parked outside. Kaul’s children soon became Vajpayee’s. He developed a special affection for the younger daughter, Namita, who was called Gunnu… The heart of the relationship between Vajpayee and Rajkumari was intellectual. From a provincial north Indian milieu, Vajpayee was both perplexed by as well as attracted to an educated woman who could hold her own. Friends remember Rajkumari arguing with Vajpayee on politics, her persistent yet soft sentences a contrast with Vajpayee’s commanding words. Rajkumari was fluent in English, well read and, unlike Vajpayee, came from an urbane family. As a Kashmiri Pandit in the Delhi of the 1960s, she had got to know the ‘Kashmiri Mafia’, i.e., the Pandit bureaucrats and officials who surrounded first Nehru, then his daughter — Rajkumari Kaul was after all a blood relation of Indira Gandhi. All this added up to a confident liberal.

This presented the R S S with a hurdle. As a family friend of the Kauls says: ‘The R S S had a huge problem with aunty Kaul. Vajpayee was a show-boy and they were proud of him. But they were very scared of aunty Kaul. Aunty Kaul had a huge influence on Vajpayee. She was a very, very powerful woman. She also made Vajpayee far more mellow, secular, cosmopolitan than he initially was. He was quite a provincial politician before he met her.’ If Mr Kaul had an objection to the relationship, he never articulated it. While Mr Kaul raised no objections, the party did…

Sometime around 1965, (R S S chief) Golwalkar travelled by train from Nagpur to Delhi, headed straight to the R S S office in Jhandewalan, and called a meeting with one item on the agenda: What was to be done about Mrs Kaul? Bhausaheb Deoras, the UP pranth pracharak, voiced his opinion: ‘As long as there is no publicity, it’s ok.’ Jana Sangh treasurer Nanaji Deshmukh disagreed, saying, ‘He [Vajpayee] should marry Rajkumari Kaul.’ Golwalkar listened to these opinions before pronouncing his own. He told Vajpayee to break off the relationship with Mrs Kaul. ‘Vajpayee, to his credit, refused to do so,’ Dattopant Thengadi, who was present, later told an aide.

Faced with a choice, Golwalkar decided not to punish Vajpayee… But it was also decided that Vajpayee would be removed from the inner circle of the R S S. Until now, Vajpayee had always done what the R S S had asked of him. But from now on, they would be at arm’s length, each needing the other, each never trusting the other.

Though she took care to never appear in the press herself, Rajkumari Kaul would ensure that the Hindi-speaking Vajpayee reached out to the Englishspeaking media. Karan Thapar remembers calling up Vajpayee’s house number to schedule an interview. ‘Mrs Kaul picked up and very sweetly asked us to come. When we came on schedule, Vajpayee was waiting. “You have spoken to the high command,” he told us.’ Advani had known Rajkumari Kaul for the last thirty years, and both had accepted the primacy of the other in their man’s life. What Advani found harder to accept was that Rajkumari Kaul’s son-inlaw Ranjan Bhattacharya and daughter Namita began to wield power.

In May 2001, the prime minister drove to the home minister’s home for a fourhour lunch. Advani poured out his hurt. He was being ignored by his oldest friend. Advani complained: ‘Not just other members of your family, but even Mrs Kaul is calling me a saanpnaath [snake lord].’ Vajpayee listened to Advani, then poured out his own hurt: Why were those close to Advani leaking stories in the press against his daughter and son-in-law? And why had the attacks on him by the R S S been so ‘vituperative’? Advani replied that it was thanks to his personal intervention that the criticisms had been ‘general rather than pointed’. Vajpayee got the message. He could not sideline both the R S S and Advani and expect to survive.

Edited excerpts from ‘Jugalbandi: The BJP before Modi’ by Vinay Sitapati with permission from Penguin Viking

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