25 December 2020 marks the 96th birth anniversary of one of the most admired politicians in the history of independent India and the tenth Prime Minister of India — Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Born in 1924 in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, to a middle-class Brahmin family, Vajpayee had completed his M.A. in Political Science with a first-class degree from DAV College, Kanpur.
His first brush with politics occurred in August 1942 at the time of Quit India Movement. Vajpayee and his elder brother Prem faced 23 days of incarceration after they heeded Mahatma Gandhi’s call to join the movement. Vajpayee was deeply inspired by RSS ideologue Syama Prasad Mookherjee after joining the Bharatiya Jan Sangh in 1951.
Vajpayee jumped into the election fray in 1957 and won from the Balrampur Lok Sabha (parliamentary) constituency of Uttar Pradesh. He also served as the President of the party from 1969 to 1972. Subsequently, Vajpayee also served as the Minister of External Affairs in 1977 when the Janata Party won the Lok Sabha elections and Morarji Desai became the Prime Minister of India.
Three years later, in 1980, Vajpayee joined L.K. Advani, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and his other colleagues from RSS, Jan Sangh to form Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and became the party’s first president. In 1984 Lok Sabha elections, the party won just two seats. But, an unflinching Vajpayee weathered the political storm and led the party during these tumultuous years, fashioning out an identity for itself by aligning with the Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir Movement by RSS and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP).
A decade later, in a turn of fortunes, BJP rose in prominence after performing well in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat state assembly elections. This brought Vajpayee and BJP back into the political centre stage of the country.
Known for his impeccable oratorical skills, Atal Bihari Vajpayee remains the only non-Congress prime minister to have occupied the chair three times and only the third overall after Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Vajpayee came to power for the first time on May 16, 1996, by forming a minority government. But his government barely lasted a fortnight till June 1 as it failed to pass the floor test.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was sworn in as Prime Minister of India for the second time on 19 March 1998. The NDA proved its majority in the house but the government lasted for only 13 months after the AIADMK under Jayalalithaa withdrew its support. The government lost the vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha by a single vote.
When fresh elections were held in 1999, the NDA came back with a majority and Vajpayee became the prime minister for the third time. His government lasted till 2004, completing a full term of five years, the first non-Congress government to have done so.
Though his first brief tenure remained relatively uneventful, his other two tenures were seminal in shaping India’s growth trajectory. The important initiatives he presided over, the crucial policies his government formulated had a far-reaching and profound impact on the country’s On his 96th birthday anniversary, here is a look at the key decisions taken by late Vajpayee that transformed the country radically.
Developing Infrastructure in India
India witnessed a rapid growth of infrastructure development under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. For decades, the Indian politicians, primarily from the Congress party and the left, turned a blind eye towards building a robust infrastructural capability to advance the country into the modern age.
Soon after Atal Bihari Vajpayee came to power in 1998, he turned his attention towards connecting far corners of the country through a network of interconnected highways. In 2001, Vajpayee launched the Golden Quadrilateral, connecting the major industrial and cultural centres across the length and breadth of the country was a brainchild of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
His critics mocked him stating that the government of India lacked funds to bankroll such an ambitious project, however, years later he proved them wrong as major metro centres of the country was connected with the roads and highways. The project was modelled on the lines of the National Highway System of the US. Vajpayee firmly believed that construction and infrastructure advancement would act as harbingers of economic development.
Another contribution made by Vajpayee in developing the country’s moribund infrastructure was by launching the rural roads scheme called the Pradhan Mantri Grameen Sadak Yojana (PMGSY). The project aimed at providing all-weather connectivity to hitherto unconnected villages. Vajpayee was of the opinion that the development of roads and improved connectivity to pave the way from economic development of the hinterland. It is little wonder then that the subsequent UPA government continued with this scheme implemented by Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Though the policy of developing roads and highways appeared to reinforce the urban connectivity programme, in reality, it was a policy that provided Rural India access to Urban India. More than 6,000 KMs of roads were built under the projects envisaged by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Lakhs of people, from both Rural and Urban India, got employment under this visionary plan. Farmers and rural artisans were connected to the nearby urban centres which enhanced their business and employment prospects and brought greater prosperity.
How Atal Bihari Vajpayee transformed India into a nuclear power
Amongst the many decisions taken by Atal Bihari Vajpayee while he was in power, transforming India into nuclear power was the most significant and momentous of them all. It demonstrated, perhaps for the first time, that India’s decisions would be guided by its self-interest and not by the geopolitical pressures.
After Vajpayee came to power in his second term in March 1998, he immediately ordered nuclear tests. In May 1998, Vajpayee hurriedly called a press conference to announce that India had conducted three underground nuclear tests in Pokhran. The decision evoked sharp criticism from several countries across the world and India had to face harsh sanctions, denying it critical nuclear and space technology.
However, Vajpayee was not preoccupied with the threats of sanctions from the international community. He was concerned with the expanding nuclear capabilities of India’s hostile neighbours. Earlier, Indira Gandhi had conducted first nuclear tests in Pokhran but India’s nuclear programme hit a snag following Rajiv Gandhi’s emphasis on nuclear disarmament. Meanwhile, China was continue augmenting its nuclear capabilities and India’s arch-nemesis, Pakistan, had also clandestinely acquired know-how for building its nuclear capabilities.
What is, perhaps, a little-known fact is that Vajpayee was predisposed to have the nuclear tests done in 1996 itself when he formed a minority government at the centre and which lasted for just 13 days. According to the accounts narrated by journalist Raj Chengappa in his book ‘Weapon of Peace’, the former Prime Minister was prepared to do the test even during his short-lived tenure in 1996 and instructed the then DRDO chief A P J Abdul Kalam to prepare for the test.
In a bid to create deterrence against India’s two neighbours, Vajpayee felt the urgency to revive India’s dormant nuclear programme. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, along with the Missile Man of India, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, ushered the country into the nuclear age. Shortly afterwards, Pakistan followed the move and carried out its own nuclear bombs. On the other hand, China sought a great commercial relationship with India after it demonstrated its nuclear capabilities.
As nations were coming to terms with India’s nuclear proficiency, Vajpayee told the Indian Parliament that the government was ordering a voluntary moratorium on further tests. The then Prime Minister also assured that India would not be the first to carry out a nuclear strike and would always follow a No-First-Use doctrine. Besides, he also added that nuclear weapons would never be used against a non-nuclear state and remain under civilian control, reinforcing India’s commitment towards maintaining peace and stability.
A decade later, this decision by Atal Bihari Vajpayee of exerting the country’s nuclear capabilities played a crucial role in the country’s signing of a nuclear pact with the United States in 2008 that granted India the recognition of being a responsible nuclear weapon state with strong non-proliferation credentials. The deal with the US not only paved the way for India to gain access to critical technologies, it also made the import of supercomputers and high-technology equipment easier.
Education for All with ‘Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan’
Realising that even after decades since India’s independence, the literacy rate of the country was at abysmal levels, Atal Bihari Vajpayee launched a revolutionary scheme— ‘Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan'(SSA) in 2001, aimed at providing elementary education to all in a time-bound manner and achieving universal literacy.
The initiative was mandated by the 86th Amendment to the Constitution of India making free and compulsory education to children between the ages of 6 to 14 a fundamental right. As a consequence, the school drop-out rate came down by 60 per cent within five years of its implementation.
The SSA is hailed as one of the most successful education schemes implemented by any central government. The fact that a non-Congress government, almost after 50 years of India’s independence, had to come up with as basic a scheme as compulsory education for children in the age group of 6 to 14 is a scathing indictment of all the central governments that preceded the Vajpayee regime. Moreover, the SSA formed a cornerstone for the implementation of the Right to Education Act, which has helped push elementary education in India.
Pioneering a telecom revolution with New Telecom Policy
Under the leadership of Vajpayee, the Indian government announced the New Telecom Policy (NTP) on 3 March 1999, opening up the sector to private players and giving a push to what had become a static and lacklustre industry.
The New Telecom Policy ended the hegemony of government-owned telecom companies and catalysed the participation of private companies that kicked up a telecom revolution. The government waived off a fixed fee that the telecom companies were asked to pay for using the spectrum. Instead, the companies were asked to share a part of their revenue under the new telecom policy.
The New Telecom Policy touched off a massive revolution, bringing in more revenue from the greater amounts of profits made by the private players. The new policy also reduced the cost of telecom companies owned by the government. The policy made a clear separation between policy formation and service provision, turning the old telecom department into a corporation – BSNL.
Competition among the private players led to a dramatic fall in tariffs and a massive improvement in the quality of services being offered. This, in turn, prompted mobile phone companies to draw the focus on India and flood the markets with new and feature-rich mobile phones. So great and extensive the impact of the New Telecom Policy that it still fuels the growth in the country’s telecom sector. India has become the second-largest smartphone market and is all poised to surpass China in the coming years.
At Corporate Awards Functions in December 2009, when Idea Cellular’s then managing-director Sanjeev Aga was asked to point out the turning point in India’s telecom sector, he referred to the 1999 NTP, saying, “When I read it today, it is still contemporary and comprehensive”. He described the NTP policy as ‘watershed moment’ of India’s telecom sector.
Authors Harsh Madhusudhan and Rajeev Mantri in their recently released book–’A New Idea of India’ hail the policy as an action that liberated the telecom sector from the political control. They also argued that Atal Bihari Vajpayee should be given the due credit that he deserves for pioneering a futuristic telecom policy as against the former PM Rajiv Gandhi and technocrat Sam Pitroda who are falsely hailed by Congress ministers and supporters as progenitors of the mobile revolution.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee and laying the foundation for strong economic reforms
The six years of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure from 1998 to 2004 was an important interval between the drab rule of Congress-led governments for over 6 decades. Vajpayee’s regime reset India’s economic aspirations and laid the foundations for strong economic growth for years to come.
Even though Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s ‘India Shining’ campaign failed in 2004 and UPA government came back in power, the country really shone in the years after Vajpayee when economic growth picked up to high single digits almost as soon as the NDA government lost. This was due to the economic reforms and the sound fundamentals of the Vajpayee years.
Disinvestment gathered pace under Atal-Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government. While disinvestment was kick-started by Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao when he started selling minority stakes of the state-owned companies, but it was Vajpayee who took the courageous decision of privatising public sector companies under “strategic sales”.
In fact, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the first Prime Minister of the country to have a separate disinvestment ministry. The Vajpayee government privatised as many as 12 public sector companies during their tenure, including behemoths such as Maruti Udyog, Hindustan Zinc, Bharat Aluminium, Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited and many others.
The Vajpayee-led NDA government was one of the few regimes which were more conscious than many other governments to how the international investors viewed the Indian market and the government. There was an unswerving focus on the fiscal rectitude with the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act providing the framework within which the fiscal math had to be contained.