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Atal Behari Vajpayee

Atal Behari Vajpayee

Indian prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee (born 1926), served briefly as India's head of state in 1996.Two year later he reclaimed that leadership role when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) mustered enough support in parliament to lead a coalition government. Vajpayee was a popular leader who spent his entire career in service to his country. He was known to distance himself from Hindu extremists within his party.

Vajpayee was born December 25, 1926, in the central Indian city of Gwalior, Madahya Pradesh. He was one of seven children of Shri Krishna Behari, a secondary school teacher and Hindu scholar. The family belonged to the Brahmin caste, the highest social level in Indian society. As a teenager, Vajpayee joined Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a secret right-wing Hindu youth organization whose name means "National Voluntary Service." He participated in the movement to liberate India from British colonial rule. As a result, he was imprisoned in 1942 and jailed for 24 days. Vajpayee graduated from Victoria College (now called Laximbai College) in Gwalior and went on to earn a master's degree in political science from Dayanand Anglo-Vedic (D.A.V.) College in Kanpur.

Vajpayee started taking courses for a law degree in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, but left school to take a job as the editor of a magazine published by the RSS. According to John F. Burns in the New York Times, the RSS "is considered the fountainhead of Hindu nationalism." On its own party's web site, the group reveals that the "RSS has always been dubbed 'communal,' 'reactionary,' and what not by its detractors." It was founded in 1925 and was nurtured in the 1940s by M.S. Golwalkar, who opposed Mahatma Gandhi's position of "Muslim appeasement." Although the RSS had "the greatest respect for the Mahatma," according to the BJP web site, 17,000 members of the group, including the leader, were accused of conspiracy in his murder. One Hindu nationalist, Naturam Vinayak Godse, was found guilty of the 1948 assassination, just a few months after Gandhi helped free India from British control.

Elected to Parliament

In 1951, Vajpayee, who always wanted to become a journalist, "came into politics by mistake," as he told Hari Ramachandran in the Reuters news service. He joined an early conservative political party, Jana Sangh, which was heavily influenced by Hindu nationalism, and served as private secretary to its founder and president, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. When Mukherjee died in 1953, Vajpayee stood out as a top name in the party, especially since he had also kept busy editing and writing for party publications, in addition to spending some time as a social worker. He became leader of the Jana Sangh party (which was the predecessor to the BJP) in 1957 and was elected to the lower house of parliament, Lok Sabha (House of the People) that same year. During this time, the country's leader was Jawaharlal Nehru, who led India from its independence in 1947 until his death in 1964.

In 1962, Vajpayee was elected to the other house of parliament, Rajya Sabha, or Council of States, where he served until 1967, and again from 1986 to 1991. The legislator served as president of his party, Jana Sangh, until 1977, spending the whole time as leader of the opposition in parliament. On June 26, 1975, he was arrested during Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's "emergency," a point at which she outlawed the RSS and arrested thousands. In 1977, Vajpayee became minister of external affairs, or foreign minister. He held that post until 1980, when he helped found the BJP, serving as its president from 1980 to 1986. Vajpayee was elected to the Rajya Sabha again in 1986, serving until 1991. In 1992, Vajpayee's party suffered a serious blow when Hindu extremists destroyed a sixteenth-century mosque in the northen town of Ayodhya, spurring nationwide riots that ended in more than 3,000 deaths.

Vajpayee had cultivated a moderate position within the staunchly pro-Hindu BJP and built an impressive resume of government activity. He served on the Indian Delegation to Commonwealth Parliamentary Association meetings held in Canada in 1966, Zambia in 1980, and the Isle of Man (Britain) in 1984. He held positions on the Committee on Government Assurances from 1966 to 1967 and the Committee on Public Accounts from 1969 to 1970. An avid traveler, he attended a parliamentary goodwill mission to East Africa in 1965, a parliamentary delegation to Australia in 1967, and an Indian delegation to an Inter-Parliamentary Union Conference held in Japan in 1974, Sri Lanka in 1975, and Switzerland in 1984. In addition, he was part of a parliamentary delegation to the European Parliament in 1983 and went along on a delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in 1988, 1989, 1990, and 1991. He also served on the National Integration Council in 1958-62, 1967-73, 1986, and again beginning in 1991.

Became Prime Minister

Vajpayee briefly held the seat of prime minister in 1996, when the BJP took the most number of seats in parliament. Since no party held a majority, BJP was given the first shot at establishing a new government. In order to gain control, the BJP would have to form a coalition with other parties. However, a rift developed with the two other mainstream parties, the Congress Party and United Front, who feared that the BJP would be too divisive, given its strong pro-Hindu stance. Though Vajpayee had cultivated a reputation as a moderate, who put great distance between himself and the nationalistic elements within his party, the BJP could not garner enough support. After just 13 days in office, Vajpayee was forced to step down. The United Front, a loose coalition of left-wing and regional parties, was sworn in. In November 1997, the Congress party withdrew its support and Prime Minister I.K. Gujral's government fell. The president subsequently dissolved the Lok Sabha.

Early in 1998, India held elections once again. No party emerged with a clear majority, but the BJP roused enough support to lead a coalition government and, once again, Vajpayee was named prime minister. This time, after taking the oath, he won a vote of confidence from parliament and maintained his position.

Nuclear Testing

In May 1998, the world was stunned to discover that India had detonated three nuclear devices in a series of underground tests. Shortly thereafter, neighboring Pakistan, India's major rival, responded with tests of their own. Many nations around the globe condemned the tests. The United States was embarrassed that it had not been able to anticipate the impending detonations, citing a massive failure on the part of American intelligence.

In the face of economic sanctions from America and other nations, Vajpayee defended the action, stating in India Today, "The decision to carry out these tests was guided by the paramount importance we attach to national security." He later added in the interview, "I would like to assure the people of the world, especially in our part of the world, that there is no cause for worry at all, much less any alarm, on account of India's action." He insisted that hundreds of nuclear tests have been performed by various countries, with no violent repercussions, and admitted that no further tests were scheduled. Vajpayee remarked, "Millions of Indians have viewed this occasion as the beginning of the rise of a strong and self-confident India," and brushed off threats of political and economic effects, saying, "Yes, our action has entailed a price. But we should not worry about it. India has an immense reservoir of resources and inner strength. … Sanctions cannot and will not hurt us."

Vajpayee has never married. Since the late 1950s, he has lived with the daughter of a close friend, Namita Bhattachariya; her husband, Ranjan; and their daughter, Neharika; first on the campus of Delhi University and later in a white colonial in central Delhi. He has adopted her family as his own and is secretive about his private life. Vajpayee is a noted poet and has published several volumes of verse. He is also revered as a colorful orator who never prepares a speech, preferring to speak extemporaneously. Collections of some of his addresses have been published. The statesman and poet's favorite activities are reading and writing. He also enjoys travel, the arts, film, gardening, and fine cuisine. Vajpayee is opposed to the caste system and promotes women's liberation efforts.

Further Reading

Current Leaders of Nations, Gale Research, 1998.

Arizona Republic, May 13, 1998, p. A6.

Dallas Morning News, March 16, 1998, p. 7A; March 20, 1998. p. 15A.

Independent, May 2, 1996, p. 11.

India Today, May 25, 1998.

Los Angeles Times, May 19, 1996, p. A4; May 29, 1996, p. A4.

Maclean's, May 27, 1996, p. 28.

New York Times, March 28, 1977; May 16, 1996.

Reuters, May 15, 1996; May 28, 1996; February 16, 1998; June 8, 1998.

"Atal Behari Vajpayee: A Profile," Bharatiya Janata Party web site, http://www.bjp.org (July 12, 1998).

"BJP History: Its Birth, Growth & Onward March," Bharatiya Janata Party web site, http://www.bjp.org (July 12, 1998).

"Vajpayee to Become India's Prime Minister," May 15, 1996, CNN web site, http://www.cnn.com (July 12, 1998). □

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