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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 43 New Delhi October 13, 2018

The Vajpayee Legacy

Monday 15 October 2018, by Ashok Parthasarathi

At a recent meeting in Delhi a group of journalists, academics, former diplomats discussed the legacy of that great public figure and national leader, Atal Behari Vajpeyee. It was agreed that Vajpayee was a remarkable man of many parts—scholar, politician, national leader.

It all began in 1957, when, as a first-time MP Vajpayee made a brilliant speech in the Lok Sabha. So impressed was Prime Minister Nehru that he walked up to him, shook him by the hand, embraced him and said: ”Young man, one day you will be the Prime Minister of our country.”

Vajpayee had the distinction of being elected for six consecutive terms to the Lok Sabha before he became the PM.

His first ministerial appointment was as the Foreign Minister in the Morarji Desai-led Janata Government of 1977-mid-1979. His almost three year tenure as the Foreign Minister was highlighted by his “major opening” to Pakistan. However, like all previous attempts to reach a negotiated settlement with Pakistan on Kashmir and other outstanding disputes, nothing finally came of it.

Then in June 1979, Vajpayee made a state visit to Beijing. However, despite all the cordiality of his reception, the Chinese insulted him by doing two things:

a) Undertaking a 10 million ton H-Bomb Test; and b) attacking Vietnam.

Vajpayee was so annoyed that he imme-diately returned home. In the event the Vietna-mese gave the Chinese a bloody nose—the only country in the world to have done so. When Mrs Gandhi returned to power in June 1980 with a huge complement of around 320 MPs and with all the components of the erstwhile Janata Party—the Socialists including George Fernandes, the Congress for Democracy of Jagjivan Ram and H.N. Bahuguna—in shambles, Vajpayee had the distinction, along with L.K. Advani (who had been the Information and Broadcasting Minister in the Morarji-led government), to be the only two Jana Sangh Ministers in the Morarji-led government to win their seats.

So, at the start of Mrs Gandhi’s government in 1980, these two stalwarts dissolved the Jana Sangh and launched the BJP.

The 1980s and 1990s saw both of them, and particularly Advani, build up the fledgeling BJP. V.P. Singh became the PM in 1989 with backing from the BJP and the Left. When Singh started implementing the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, Advani launched his famous rath yatra from Somnath in the west to Puri in Orissa in the east. While he supported the yatra, Vajpayee took no part in it. The yatra culminated in the fall of the V.P. Singh Government.

As is well known, following the Narasimha Rao Government (1991-96), there were unstable regimes led by Deve Gowda and Inder Gujral. Even before that in 1991 itself Chandrasekhar had led an unstable government at the Centre after V.P. Singh’s exit. Before the United Front Governments, led by first Deve Gowda and then I.K. Gujral, took office, Vajpayee led a BJP-dominated coalition government at the Centre. In 1998 Vajpayee, as the BJP-led NDA Government’s PM, was in office for more than a year. However, it lost a vote of confidence by just one vote in 1999.

But, the BJP under Vajpayee won a decisive victory in the next general election in 1999. It was a 24-party coalition led by Vajpayee and with Advani as the Home Minister.

The first thing that the comfortably elected Vajpayee did in 1998 was to call A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, then the Scientific Adviser to the former Defence Minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav, the leader of the Samajwadi Party in the United Front Government, and directed him to go ahead with a series of nuclear weapon tests. It was thus that a series of such tests was under-taken jointly by scientists and technologists from the Department of Atomic Energy headed by Dr R. Chidambaram and the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) headed by Kalam. The tests were undertaken on May 11 and May 13, 1998. These nuclear tests—later named by Vajpayee himself the as the ‘Shakti Tests’—proved to be a mixed bag. Some of the nuclear weapons, for example, the test of a 30 kiloton atomic device fully designed and engineered as not just a bomb as opposed to a device, worked superbly on May 11. However, the second major device was a thermo-nuclear device much less than a bomb, and it failed. Why and how it did so have been the subject of much controversy in the S&T community, in the media, and above all, in Parliament. As of today some 20 years later the controversy continues. Like what Indira Gandhi achieved after our first nuclear test at Pokhran on May 18, 1974, the ‘Shakti Tests’ boosted Vajpayee’s standing both in the country and internationally.

With this major achievement accomplished, Vajpayee turned his attention to national development issues across a broad front—from agrarian reform to boosting industry, parti-cularly in the small and medium sector. This sector was a particularly strong political consti-tuency of the BJP, which was basically a party of traders. What is more, it was highly labour-intensive and so generated considerable employ-ment.

He then got one of our leading economic think-tanks—the National Council of Applied Economic Research—to undertake socio-economic surveys of each of the States of the country to asssess the present condition of each State; what needed to be done to improve the condition of the State concerned and what programmes could be designed and put into practice.

For a man who could sing Thumries and Ghazals with ease and could compose and recite poetry in Hindi that would lead to rapturous applause from the audience, Vajpayee was a man of many parts. Though he started his political life as a humble RSS pracharak, his integrity, his patriotism and his ability to mobilise and organise ground-level ordinary RSS workers into a mighty force soon brought him, as early as the first few years of 1950s, to the notice of the then Chief of the RSS, or Sarsanghchaalak (supreme leader) of the RSS, Hedgewar. After two or three conversations with young Vajpayee it did not take Hedgewar long to realise (like Nehru did as mentioned earlier) that Vajpayee would one day rise to be the Prime Minister of the country!! In course of time Vajpayee did achieve that position.

What is Vajpayee’s legacy of Political Foreign and Security Policies and Economic and Social Policies he has left to our nation during his term as the PM?

It has often been said that Vajpayee was the right man but in the wrong party, that is, he was more a Congress Nationalist in the mould of Nehru rather than a follower of the famous Jana Sangh leader, Deen Dayal Upadhyay.

Vajpayee remarkably combined electrifying poetry (especially after a couple of stiff whistles) with almost a “Mauna Vrat” when it came to large government meetings, for example, meetings of his 20-man Cabinet or meetings of the Consultative Committees of Parliament. His style at Cabinet meetings was as follows. From the beginning of the meeting, he would let his ministerial colleagues have all the say. And his colleagues took full advantage of Vajpayee’s silence. After allowing the remarks and observations of his colleagues sitting around him for a while, Vajpayee would suddenly say “Ho Gaya” which his colleagues as also the Cabinet Secretary soon learnt to understand that the Cabinet meeting was over; and the Cabinet Secretary thereafter had to prepare the Draft Minutes of the Cabinet meeting for Vajpayee’s approval. It further meant the proposal under consideration was approved.

But Vajpayee took his “Mauna Vrat” too far. After the dastardly attack on Parliament by Pakistani-trained “mujahideen”, that is, heavily armed and well trained terrorists, who had slipped into the country by skilfully bypassing our border guards and then a crack team of them managed to get through the guards at the entry gates of Parliament House itself and finally using their AK-47 automatic machine guns to spray volley after volley of withering fire for almost 10 minutes before they were over-powered by the well-armed and well-trained National Security Guards in the

second protective ring

, the whole nation was numbed with shock, and the very first government response was for Vajpayee to call an immediate meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS)—the Inner Cabinet of all the Security-Related Cabinet Ministers (Home and Defence and External Affairs), all three service Chiefs and the Director (IB) responsible for Internal Security and the Secretary RAW, who was our External Security Chief.

The meeting held in Room 155 in South Block of the Central Secretariat—the Cabinet Room—lasted almost three hours. Various responses by the GOI to the Parliament attack were formulated and discussed. However, in the end it was decided that the attack—right at the heart of our nation, Parliament—should be responded by a full-fledged putting of all military and para-militay forces of all three services and all intelligence forces on maximum altert to be ready to go for a full-fledged war with Pakistan and waiting only for the word


from the CCS.

True to his style, Vajpayee said almost nothing, while the process of options were formulated, discussed and the final


decision ready to be taken. He said only one sentence at the end of the almost three-hour long meeting: “The dastardly act of Pakistan to try and destroy the very heart of our nation which is the voice of one billion Indians must be avenged and decisively at that.” What next came to pass was a unique response of any nation—which remained

on full alert for as long as nine months

. During this agonisingly long period, the UN Security Council met

three times

to consider what if anything, the Council should or

even do

to prevent a full-fledged Indo-Pak War. Of course our main and

solid ally

in the Council, namely, the USSR, said it would veto any Resolution of the Council which involved major power intervention

in any manner in the matter

. The Soviets asked the Western democracies: “What would you do if, like in this case, your Parliament were attacked by a foreign power?” That shut up the USA, the UK and France, while China did not have a word to say. What could they have said when the attacker was Pakistan, relations with whom, the Chinese had often said, were so close, that they were like “lips and teeth”. So the impasse lasted nine long months. The nation was spending Rs 10 crore a day on the

full alert


The pressure on Vajpayee’s call for the

full alert

from less than patriotic forces was mounting but Vajpayee and the CCS would not give in.

At this stage he had a long conversation with his Principal Secretary and closest adviser (the relations between them were also like lips and teeth), Brajesh Mishra. After much reflection Brajesh advised that we immediately


the full alert

as it was taking us nowhere. As was his wont, Vajpayee thought for a while and then agreed. So, the

full alert

was called off. We had by then spent Rs 100 crores on the full alert. Many people in the country criticised him for the money wasted but it was not


. Pakistan would never

even contemplate

such an attack again.

But the sustained pressure and tension over nine months had taken a heavy toll of him. However, in retrospect, he would always say that he felt he had done the correct thing.

I now move to another matter which throws much light on Vajpayee—as a man, a policy-maker and a Prime Minister.

In 2003, Vajpayee took a large delegation of (a) BJP Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha; (b) the heads of the major political parties; and (c) his two Intelligence Chiefs on an official visit to China. While it was supposed to be primarily a high-level meeting between Vajpayee and the President of China, Jian Zemin, and Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, the real core of the visit was to discuss and settle the long outstanding problem of Sikkim. Although we had always regarded Sikkim as an integral part of India, ran a government there, held elections there and had both the Army and IAF complements with both: Air Defence Ground-to-Air Surface-to-Air (SAM) batteries deployed and had Agni I 700 km range and Agni-II 1800 km range Ballistic Missiles there, the Chinese had always taken the position that Sikkim was a principality and not a part of India. However, due in large part to the negotiation skills of Vajpayee’s Principal Secretary, Brajesh Mishra, who had served in China as Charge d’ Affaires from 1969 to 1971—we and the Chinese had both broken-off all diplomatic relations since the 1962 Sino-Indian War and so neither had full fledged ambassadors in each other’s country; we only had “proxy” ambassadors there: senior Foreign Service officers but they were


designated as “Ambassadors”—that after three days of intense negotiations, Chinese agreed to recognising Sikkim as an integral part of India. An agreement to that effect was signed and so were the maps exchanged. The whole matter appeared to have been settled.

This was one of Vajpayee’s great achievements. However, he had not contended what was to happen shortly. Within six months of the agreement being signed, the Chinese were back again at their old game. What was that? The topography of Sikkim is such that there is 100 km long and, importantly flat “finger” protruding into China from the main landmass. What the Chinese did was to deploy some 100 mountain troops all along the “finger”. They also deployed some light tanks and mortars along the “finger”. This was a clear violation of the June 2003 Agreement; so we took up the matter with both local commanders and the Chinese Foreign Office and the Chinese Defence Ministry. What was their reaction/response? A bland and flat denial!! They were not convinced even when we showed them colour photographs of the Chinese troop deployment and deploy-ment of their light artillery, mortars and bunker with as high resolution for 40cm. So, on the advise of Brajesh, Vajpayee directed Defence Minister Fernandes to mount a major Army and Air Force operation to “throw” the Chinese


out of the “finger”. This directive was fully fulfilled after a bloody ten-day war. Vajpayee learnt a major lesson from this experience, namely, that the Chinese were


untrustworthy and any and all/agreements were not worth the paper on which they were written!

A major matter of foreign security policy which Vajpayee faced was the enormous pressure put on him by the Americans for India to send several battalions of its Army to fight in Iraq on the side of the USA and against the Al-Qaeda. We had never sent our troops to a foreign land, let alone a land as important as close to us as Iraq. So Vajpayee again, advised by Brajesh, flatly refused the US overture.

A serious mistake he committed during his six-year term as the PM, was to say on a visit to our country by US President William Clinton, when the two leaders met the world press on the conclusion of Clinton’s visit, that “India and the USA are natural allies”. Needless to say this statement had a very bad effect in Moscow and indeed from then on for the rest of Vajpayee’s term as the PM—about a year, Indo-Soviet relations hit a chill. More seriously, the USA did not take a more positive view of India, whether in terms of foreign, security or economic policy. June 2004 saw the next General Elections. Vajpayee and his 24-party coalition went to the people with slogan of “India Shining”. But the economic situation was not good and the people wanted a change. So Vajpayee lost the election and the Manmohan Singh-led UPA-I Government, in which the Left parties had a significant say, came to power.

Prof Ashok Parthasarathi is a former Science and Technology Adviser to late PM Indira Gandhi.

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