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The Enduring Legacy of Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee

By Srimal Fernando, Global Editor, The Diplomatic Society and Prateek Joshi

Many people consider Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the former Prime Minister of India as a true leaders and legend. Born in 1924 in the central Indian town of Gwalior, his involvement in politics began as a freedom-fighter during the Quit India Movement in 1942 for which he was arrested by the British authorities. His popularity was such that he was elected to the Lok Sabha (the lower house of India's Parliament) nine times and twice to the Rajya Sabha (upper house).
Photo: Indian  Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee speaking at the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York

Vajpayee played an active role during the emergency era (1975-77) following which the Janta Party (People's Party) won the 1977 elections, during which he served as the Minister of External Affairs. In 1980 he became the first president of the newly formed Bharatiya Janta Party(BJP), which is also the current party in power with Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister. It is under Vajpayee’s visionary leadership that BJP emerged as a powerful party by the end of millennium. Left with only 2 seats in the 1984 elections, Vajpayee’s tireless efforts to strengthen the party at the grass root level by winning 182 seats in the 1999 election, which enabled him to form a coalition government.

It was not only his party, but the opposition parties also held him in a high regard. For instance, during his premiership, Prime Minister Narsimha Rao (who belonged to the rival Congress party) had deputed Vajpayee as the  leader of the Indian delegation to the special session of the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva. It was because of his exceptional and enthralling oratory skills that Vajpayee was selected as a delegate to speak at the United Nations (UN). A prolific poet and speaker, Vajpayee is known for captivating the audience wherever he speaks.  Such was his eloquence that even Prime Minister Nehru complimented him by saying that one day he would become the Prime Minister.

When he became the Prime Minister of India again in 1999, a new era of diplomatic engagements began with Pakistan to promote peace as well as to negotiate on the peaceful solution on the Kashmir issue. His tireless and goal oriented negotiations with Kashmiris and the Pakistani leadership to arrive at a concrete solution on the Kashmir dispute earned him an eternal goodwill among the Kashmiri masses as well the leadership.

His efforts to create normalcy and closer ties with Pakistan are worth mentioning too. The starting of Delhi-Lahore Bus service was the highlight of his new approach to increasing ties. In fact, Vajpayee personally travelled to Lahore to inaugurate this bus service. Despite a war with Pakistan following his initiatives, Vajpayee again broke the ice in the Indo-Pak relations by inviting Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to Delhi and Agra for a joint summit and peace talks in 2001.

His vision of a stable and peaceful South Asia was reflected in the priority he gave to revive the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and reaching out to south Asian nations. His concern regarding peace in Sri Lanka earned him accolades from the Sri Lankan leadership. He was in regular contact with the Sri Lankan leadership, along with the peacemaker Norway, looking to end the Sri Lankan civil war.

Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit to the United States in 2000 set the stage for a new era of Indo-US ties in the post cold war era. This new era of bilateralism was built upon wide ranging issues such as  economic cooperation, trade, mutual concern regarding growing terrorism and Kashmir conflict, thereby bringing the two countries closer than ever. Even the process for reaching a negotiation on a nuclear deal(which was arrived at in 2005) began under Vajpayee’s tenure.
Photo: U.S. President Bill Clinton shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee. U.S. President Bill Clinton's visit to India was viewed as very significant in improving the foreign trade and economic relations between the two nations.

In his tenure as the Prime Minister of India from 1999 to 2004, Vajpayee introduced many reforms, including encouraging the private sector and foreign investments, encouraging research and development and privatisation of some government owned corporations. One of the most ambitious projects successfully taken off under his tenure was the Golden Quadrilateral highway project, linking major Indian cities through a wide highway network. His economic policies aligned India closely with the global economy.  Besides these macro level goals, his vision was also to eliminate illiteracy and bring India’s social indicators with the global north as soon as possible. His vision on universal education for children later manifested as the Right to Education by the successor government.

Despite falling short of the majority mark, it was due to Vajpayee’s negotiation skills that he was able successfully run a coalition government composed of close to two dozen political parties who pledged to form the National Democratic Alliance government led by Vajpayee as the Prime Minister.

An able politician, a visionary, a philosopher, a poet, an enchanting orator and an upright honest leader is what defines Atal Bihari Vajpayee. It has been a decade since he retired from active politics citing his age.  Nevertheless, his exemplary leadership and his vision for a strong India will continue to guide the generations of politicians to come.

Prateek Joshi  is a  student  from India  studying Master of Arts (MA) degree in International Relations at the South Asian University


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