Atal Bihari Vajpayee is the former leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or Indian People’s Party, a pro-Hindu political movement that seeks to define Indian culture and society according to Hindu religious values.
Vajpayee was twice prime minister of India, in 1996 and from 1998 to 2004. He is considered the leader of Hindu nationalism and served as a member of parliament for almost 50 years. During his six years as prime minister, Vajpayee worked to modernize the Indian economy and settle long-standing disputes with Pakistan. His government has been accused of fostering racism against Muslims and political extremism. Alongside his political activity Vajpayee also earned a reputation as a poet, publishing collections of poetry.
Vajpayee was born in Gwailor in Madhya Pradesh in 1924. He earned a master’s degree in political science from Victoria College and DAV College. His involvement with politics started at a very early age. Although initially close to communism he soon shifted to the right, finding inspiration in the campaigns of Syama Prasad Mookerjee for the inclusion of the Muslim majority state of Kashmir in the Indian Union. In 1957 Vajpayee won his first parliamentary seat, and, after Mookerjee’s death, he took on the leadership of the BJS, becoming one of the major and most respected voices of opposition to the congress party. Yet, although the BJS increasingly won strong support in the northern regions of the country, it repeatedly failed to remove the Congress from power. During the Indian Emergency of 1975–77, proclaimed by then-prime minister Indira Gandhi, Vajpayee was a vocal critic of the government and the suspensions of civil rights. He was also briefly put in jail. Upon his release he helped to form the Janata Coalition.
In his two years in government and in spite of his Hindu nationalism, Vajpayee worked to improve diplomatic relationships with Pakistan and China, visiting both countries and establishing trade relations with them. As the Janata government folded, destroyed by internal rifts, Vajpayee founded the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which became the new party of Hindu nationalism and conservatism. The party performed badly in the 1984 election, in which it won only two seats in Parliament, in part because of the wave of sympathy for the Congress Party that swept the nation after the murder of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. The anti-Muslim sentiment that took hold of large sectors of the nation in the 1980s and early 1990s led to an impressive growth in the BJP.
With strong parliamentary support, Vajpayee embarked on a large program of economic reforms, encouraging the private sector and limiting state involvement in the industrial sector to contain waste and public debt. He also stimulated foreign investments and research in information technology, making India one of the major powers in the field. During Vajpayee’s government, India experienced one of its fastest periods of economic growth. Yet critics argue that the poorer sectors of Indian society were left out of this prosperity. Vajpayee’s foreign policy record is equally mixed. His decision to conduct five underground nuclear tests in Rajasthan provoked international criticism.
Yet his government made historic progress in the establishment of normal relations with Pakistan, and President bill clinton’s official visit to India signaled the beginning of a new diplomatic entente between the United States and India after the tensions of the cold war. The economic and diplomatic successes of his government, however, were not enough to assure Vajpayee’s reelection.