Atal Bihari Vajpayee: The 3-Time PM Who Captivated India With His Oratory

Considered the gold standard of leadership in the ruling BJP, Atal Bihari Vajpayee became the first politician to truly challenge the legacy of the Congress, the grand old party, as he was the first non-Congress prime minister to last a full term.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee: The 3-Time PM Who Captivated India With His Oratory

Atal Bihari Vajpayee ruled India for 13 days in 1996, 13 months in 1998, for almost 6 years from 1999

New Delhi:

In 1957, a first-timer's debut speech in parliament so impressed then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru that he predicted, while introducing the young politician to a foreign dignitary: "this young man will one day become prime minister".

Atal Bihari Vajpayee would become prime minister of India thrice. 

He ruled the country for 13 days in 1996, 13 months in 1998 and for five years from 1999. 

One of India's most charismatic politicians, the gold standard of leadership in the ruling BJP, Mr Vajpayee ordered nuclear tests in 1998 and travelled by bus to Pakistan in 1999 in a grand diplomatic gesture. He was the first politician to truly challenge the legacy of the Congress, the grand old party, as he was the first non-Congress prime minister to last a full term.

In his 47 years in parliament, the former prime minister captivated the nation with his dry wit and oratory, proving that no one could work the room quite like he could.

"Satta ka khel chalega (the game of power will go on). Governments will come and go. Parties will be made and unmade. This country should survive, its democracy should survive," Mr Vajpayee said in a speech before his government faced a trust vote in May 1996. His 13-day government fell soon after. 

"We bow to majority and we will not rest until we fulfill our national mission. Mister Speaker, here comes my resignation," Mr Vajpayee said in the memorable speech that remains hugely popular on YouTube.


Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a three-time Prime Minister

In 1999, his government lost a no-confidence motion by one vote. During his speech, he did not once attack Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who had declared to the media, only to regret it for years to come - "We have 272".

His sparkling oratory was again on display when he defended the Pokhran nuclear tests. "It is surprising that people are criticizing the nuclear tests. When in 1974 then prime minister Indira Gandhi had carried out the tests, we welcomed it even while we were in the opposition. Was there any threat to the nation at the time," he said in parliament.

Poetry was his most preferred expression and delivered his message effectively in a few well-chosen words.

Mr Vajpayee was born on December 25, 1924, to Krishna Devi and Krishna Bihari Vajpayee, who was a poet and schoolmaster He joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, BJP's ideological mentor, in 1939. In 1942, he and his brother were arrested during the Quit India movement. In 1951, he was asked by RSS to work for the newly former Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the predecessor of the BJP. 

He entered the Rajya Sabha as a 37-year-old in 1962 before returning to the Lok Sabha five years later. Over the next four decades, he was re-elected to the Lok Sabha nine times.

He spent months in prison in the Emergency Rule of 1975 imposed by Indira Gandhi's Congress government.


Atal Bihari Vajpayee formed his third government in 1999. It lasted a full term.

In the Janata government that came to power in 1977, Mr Vajpayee became foreign minister.

But Mr Vajpayee, who rose to spectacular heights, was no stranger to rock-bottom in his political journey.  In 1984, after Indira Gandhi's assassination, the BJP that he set up with his long-time friend and colleague LK Advani managed to win just two seats in the 545-member parliament. Mr Vajpayee also lost in Gwalior, his birthplace.

In the 1990s, the party captured the nation's attention with the "Ram Janmabhoomi movement" for a temple at the site of the 16th century Babri mosque in Ayodhya that many Hindus believe was built on the birthplace of Lord Ram. Mr Vajpayee was the only voice in his party who called it the "worst miscalculation" when karsewaks or volunteers razed the mosque in 1992.

Often described as the "right man in the wrong party", he was the liberal face of the BJP, the man who mainstreamed the right.

Sometime after the Kargil conflict ended in 1999, some BJP leaders suggested that the prime minister approve their proposal to honour Atal Bihari Vajpayee with the country's highest civilian award for the nuclear tests.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the prime minister, would have none of it.

The Bharat Ratna did come to him 16 years later. By then, he had retreated from politics and was barely ever seen in public.

Since 2009, Mr Vajpayee had largely been confined to his home because of his health.

Those close to him remember him as a charmer who could floor his bitter rivals with a turn of the phrase. They also talk of a man who loved his Manali retreats and freshly-caught trout. 

It was a reflection of his politics and statesmanship that politicians across the spectrum rushed to Delhi to pay their respects to the veteran. When he was brought to AIIMS hospital in June, one of the first to check on him had been Rahul Gandhi of the Congress.

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