“Our aim may be as high as the endless sky, but we should have a resolve in our minds to walk ahead, hand-in-hand, for victory will be ours.”
– Atal Bihari Vajpayee
The nation has given its tearful adieu to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the first non-Congress prime minister to hold office for more than five years. Since Thursday evening, soon after the news of death was officially made public, there had been a non-stop stream of visitors at the bungalow on Krishna Menon Marg where the three-time prime minister spent the last few years away from public life. The poet-prime minister, statesman was given a state funeral in the national capital on Friday. His last rites was performed at Smriti Sthal close to Rajghat, located between the memorials to other former prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri. After NDA failed to win Lok Sabha elections in 2004, Vajpayee resigned from active politics and spent most of his retirement life at home. The former prime minister is one of the few politicians who so effortlessly stepped across the Lakshman rekha of party propriety and ideology and yet garnered all-round respectability and till ill-health laid him low, he occupied the political centre-stage with hardly a single blemish of graft, nepotism or rank opportunism blotting his nearly 50 years of public life. Vajpayee, BJP’s founding president, had risen from the ranks of the Rashtriya Sawayamsevak Sangh to president of the Jan Sangh after Deendayal Upadhyaya.
He became Prime Minister of India for three consecutive terms in 1996, 1998, and 1999. The first two terms were very short lived 13 days and 11 months respectively. However, in 1999 when he became the Prime Minister for the third time, he ran the coalition government for a full five-year term till 2004. He was also the first non-Congress Prime Minister to complete a full term. In the coalition era of the 1990s, the BJP PM with a pan-India appeal made friends across the board — the Vajpayee council of ministers included Nitish Kumar, Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik, Omar Abdullah. During the second term as the Prime Minister, the Bharat Ratna oversaw the Pokhran nuclear test in May 1998 and the subsequent international sanctions that went with it. In the last term as Prime Minister, his government had to face the Kargil War in 1999. The Golden Quadrilateral project, envisioned and executed by his government, contributed significantly to solidify his positive legacy. Policy innovations of Vajpayee’s government sparked off India’s telecom revolution. It was during his time that Northeastern part of the country received maximum attention. The Ministry for the Development of the North East (DoNER) and the ‘Look East’ Policy, which helped in improving India’s ties with countries in South-East Asia and East Asia were creations of Vajpayee. Vajpayee’s National Democratic Alliance will go down in history as the most reformist (and also the most economically right-of-centre) government the country has seen so far.
There is no denying that August has been a cruel month for Indian politics as it saw the demise of three political stalwarts – first M Karunanidhi, followed by Somnath Chatterjee and finally Vajpayee. A brilliant parliamentarian and a shrewd politician who could demolish political opponents with his wit, Vajpayee, without a doubt, was the torchbearer of Hindutva. Prime Minister Narendra Modi described Vajpayee’s death as the “end of an era” and said he felt like he had lost a father. It is indeed an end of an era.