He soon became a close follower and aide to Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the leader of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS). Vajpayee was at Mookerjee's side when he went on a fast-unto-death in Kashmir in 1953, to protest what the BJS claimed the inferior treatment of Indian citizens visiting Kashmir. Mookerjee's fast and protest ended the identity card requirement, and hastened the integration of Kashmir into the Indian Union. However, Mookherjee died soon after due to health problems caused by his confinement in jail.
As the leader of BJS, he expanded its political appeal, organization and agenda. Vajpayee was elected to the parliament in 1957 from the Balrampur. In spite of his youth, he soon became a respected voice in the opposition. His broad appeal brought respect, recognition and acceptance to a rising nationalist cultural movement.
However, when the general election was held in 1977 following the resignation of Indira Gandhi, the BJS joined hands with a vast collage of regional groups, socialist parties and similar groups to form the Janata Party. The party swept the polls and formed a new government with Morarji Desai as Prime Minister. Vajpayee won the election from New Delhi parliamentary constituency and was sworn in as the Minister for External Affairs.
In a tenure lasting two years, Vajpayee achieved several milestones. He went on a historic visit to China in 1979, normalizing relations with China for the first time since the 1962 Sino-Indian War. He also visited Pakistan and initiated normal dialogue and trade relations that were frozen since the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War and subsequent political instability in both countries. Vajpayee represented the nation at the Conference on Disarmament, where he defended the national nuclear program, the centerpiece of national security in the Cold War world, especially with neighboring China being a nuclear power. (In 1974, India had become the sixth nuclear power of the world when she conducted an underground nuclear test at Pokhran) Although he resigned in 1979 when the government politically attacked the RSS, he had established his credentials as an experienced statesman and a respected political leader. During this tenure, he also became the first person to deliver a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in Hindi (in 1977), the "most unforgettable" moment in his life by his own admission.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, along with many BJS and RSS colleagues, particularly his long-time and close friends Lal Krishna Advani and Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, founded the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1980. Vajpayee became its first President. The BJP was a strong critic of the Congress(I) government that followed the Janata rule, and while it opposed the Sikh militancy that was rising in the state of Punjab, it also blamed Indira Gandhi for divisive and corrupt politics that fostered the militancy at national expense. Leader Darasingh opines that Vajpayee thus "brought in Hindu-Sikh harmony."
Although it supported Operation Bluestar, the BJP strongly protested violence against Sikhs in Delhi that broke out in 1984 following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by one of her Sikh bodyguards. Vajpayee was known and commended for protecting Sikhs against Congress-followers seeking to avenge the death of their leader. The BJP was left with only two parliamentary seats in the 1984 elections; the party, however, had established itself in the mainstream of Indian politics, and soon began expanding its organization to attract young Indians throughout the country. During this period Vajpayee remained center-stage as party President and Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, but increasingly hard-line Hindu nationalists began to rise within the party and define its politics.
The BJP became the political voice of the Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir Movement, which was led by activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the RSS, and was seeking to build a temple dedicated to Lord Rama at the site of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. Hindu activists believed the site was the birthplace of the Lord, and thus qualified as one of the most sacred sites of Hinduism.
On December 6, 1992, hundreds of VHP and BJP activists broke down an organized protest into a frenzied attack, and brought down the mosque. Over the following weeks, waves of violence between Hindus and Muslims erupted in various parts of the country, killing over 1000 people. The VHP was banned by the government, and many BJP leaders including Lal Krishna Advani were arrested briefly for provoking the destruction. Although widely condemned by many across the country for playing politics with sensitive issues, the BJP won the loyalty and support of millions of conservative Hindus, as well as national prominence.
With victory in assembly elections of Gujarat and Maharashtra in March 1995, and a good performance in the elections to the Karnataka assembly in December 1994 propelled the BJP to the centerstage. During the BJP session at Mumbai in November 1995, BJP President L.K.Advani declared that Vajpayee would be the Prime Minister of India if the BJP won next parliamentary elections held in May 1996.
His premiership began at a decisive phase of national life and history: the Congress Party, dominant for over 40 years, appeared irreparably damaged, and fractious regional parties seemed to threaten the very stability of the nation by continually fracturing government work.
While some nations, such as Russia and France, endorsed India's right to defensive nuclear power, others including the US, Canada, Japan, the UK and the European Union imposed sanctions on the sale of military equipment and high-tech scientific information, resources and technology to India or Pakistan. In spite of the intense international criticism and the steady decline in foreign investment and trade, the nuclear tests were popular domestically and the Vajpayee's popularity and the BJP's prestige rose in response.
During his reign, Vajpayee introduced many important economic and infrastructural reforms domestically including, encouraging the private sector and foreign investements; reducing governmental waste; encouraging research and development and privatizing of government owned corporations.
The Vajpayee led government was faced with two crises in mid-1999. The AIADMK party had continually threatened to withdraw support from the coalition and national leaders repeatedly flew down from Delhi to Chennai to pacify the AIADMK chief J. Jayalalitha. Finally, in May 1999, the AIADMK did pull the plug on the NDA, and the Vajpayee administration was reduced to a caretaker status pending fresh elections scheduled for October.
Indian army units were rushed into Kashmir in response. Operation Vijay (1999), launched in June 1999, saw the Indian military fighting thousands of terrorists and soldiers amidst heavy artillery shelling and while facing extremely cold weather, snow and treacherous terrain at the high altitude. Over 500 Indian soldiers died in the three-month long Kargil War, and it is estimated around 600 Pakistani militants and soldiers died as well. Pakistan's army shot down two air force jets. The mutilation of the body of pilot Ajay Ahuja inflamed public opinion in India. After both the United States and China refused to condone the incursion or threaten India to stop its military operations, Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif asked the militants to stop and withdraw to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
In October 1999, General Pervez Musharraf, chief of Pakistan's army and the chief architect of the Kargil plotting, seized power from the civilian, democratic government of Pakistan, and established his own dictatorship. A national crisis popped up in December 1999, when an Indian Airlines flight (IC 814 from Nepal) was hijacked by Pakistani terrorists and flown via Pakistan to Taliban ruled Afghanistan. The media and the relatives of the hijacked passengers built up tremendous pressure on the government to give in to the hijackers' demand to release certain Kashmiri terrorists, including high-ranking Maulana Masood Azhar, from prison. The government ultimately caved in and Jaswant Singh, the Indian External Affairs minister, flew with the terrorists to Afghanistan and exchanged them for the passengers. No explanation was given by the Indian government for the External Affairs minister personally escorting the terrorists. The crisis also worsened the relationship between India and Pakistan, as the hijacked plane was allowed to re-fuel in Lahore, and all the hijackers, except one, were Pakistanis.
Vajpayee oversaw his National Highway Development Project begin construction, in which he took a personal interest.
In March 2000 Bill Clinton, the President of the United States paid a state visit to India. His was the first state visit to India by US President in 22 years. President Clinton's visit to India was hailed as a significant milestone in the relations between the two countries. Since the visit followed barely two years after the Pokhran tests, and one year after the Kargil invasion and the subsequent coup in Pakistan, it was read to reflect a major shift in the post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy. The Indian Prime Minister and the U.S. President discussed strategic issues, but the chief achievement was a significant expansion in trade and economic ties.Historic Vision Document on the future course of relations between the two countries was signed by Prime Minister Vajpayee and President Clinton during the visit.
Domestically, the BJP led government was under constant pressure from its ideological mentor, the RSS, and the hard-line VHP to enact the Hindutva agenda. But owing to its dependence on coalition support, it was impossible for the BJP to push items like building the Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir in Ayodhya, repealing Article 370 which gave a special status to the state of Kashmir, or enacting a uniform civil code applicable to adherents of all religions. The BJP was however accused of saffron-ising (saffron is the color of the flag of the RSS, symbol of the Hindu nationalism movement) the official state education curriculum and apparatus. Home Minister L.K. Advani and Education Minister Murli Manohar Joshi were indicted in the 1992 Babri Mosque demolition case for inciting the mob of activists. The RSS also routinely criticized the government for free-market policies which introduced foreign goods and competition at the expense of home industries and products.
Vajpayee's administration earned the ire of many unionized workers groups and government workers for their aggressive campaign to privatize government owned corporations. Vajpayee promoted pro-business, free market reforms to reinvigorate India's economic transformation and expansion that were started by former PM Narasimha Rao but stalled after 1996 due to unstable governments and the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Increased competitiveness, extra funding and support for the information technology and high-tech industries, improvements in infrastructure, deregulation of trade, investments and corporate laws - all increased foreign capital investment and set in motion an economic expansion.
These couple of years of reform however were accompanied by infighting in the administration and confusion regarding the direction of government. Cabinet portfolios were created and shuffled every six months apparently to pacify restless coalition partners. Vajpayee's weakening health was also a subject of public interest, and he underwent a major knee-replacement surgery at the Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai to relieve great pressure on his legs.
In March 2001, the Tehelka group released incriminating videos of the BJP President Bangaru Laxman, senior army officers and NDA members accepting bribes from journalists posing as agents and businessmen. While the scandals were not linked to Vajpayee's personally, the Defence Minister George Fernandes was forced to resign following this Barak Missile Deal Scandal, another scandal involving the botched supplies of coffins for the soldiers killed in Kargil, and the finding of an inquiry commission that the Government could have prevented the Kargil invasion. These developments as well as an ambiguous response of the economy to the reforms, reduced the Vajpayee administration's popularity and undermined its future.
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. His second-major attempt to move beyond the stalemate tensions involved inviting the man who had planned the Kargil invasions, but accepting him as the President of Pakistan, Vajpayee chose to move forward. But after three days of much fanfare, which included Musharraf visiting his birthplace in Delhi, the summit failed to achieve a breakthrough as President Musharraf declined to leave aside the issue of Kashmir.
The Vajpayee administrations passed the Prevention of Terrorist Act against vigorous opposition of non-NDA parties. Human rights groups have condemned the act which gives wide authority to the government to crack down and hold anybody. Its repeal was advocated by human rights organisations.
But the biggest political disaster hit between December 2001 and March 2002: the VHP held the Government hostage in a major standoff in Ayodhya over the Ram temple. At the 10th anniversary of the destruction of the Babri mosque, the VHP wanted to perform a sheela daan, or a ceremony laying the foundation stone of the cherished temple at the disputed site. Tens of thousands of VHP activists amassed and threatened to overrun the site and forcibly build the temple. A grave threat of not only communal violence, but an outright breakdown of law and order owing to the defiance of the government by a religious organization hung over the nation.
Just a week following the standoff, a train carriage carrying hundreds of VHP activists returning from Ayodhya was attacked by a Muslim mob(not yet confirmed) in Godhra, Gujarat and the bogey was set afire, killing 59 activists. The result was an episode of communal violence in which over 1,000 people were killed and displaced. Three fourths of the killed were Muslims while the rest were Hindus. Organizations such as VHP affiliated with the ruling BJP, as well as the State government led by BJP leader and Chief Minister Narendra Modi, were accused of fomenting the violence, though this only remained to be an allegation. Vajpayee visited the state and publicly criticized the Chief Minister for not doing his moral duty to protect the people; he also spoke at a national party convention in Goa in June, 2002 allegedly attacking Muslims for having tolerated the Godhra attackers, and not doing enough to counter Islamic terrorism entering the country. In a Cabinet reshuffle, his long-time and close associate Lal Krishna Advani was designated Deputy Prime Minister of India, and increased power in the party and the Cabinet, and more credibility with the RSS and the conservative Hindu base. In September 2002, Narendra Modi led the BJP to a major victory, and thus vindication through the state assembly elections. His defiant victory was seen standing right against the moral criticism handed down by the Prime Minister. (See also:2002 Gujarat violence)
In late 2002 and 2003 the government pushed economic reforms, and the country's GDP growth accelerated at record levels, exceeding 6-7%. Increasing foreign investment, modernization of public and industrial infrastructure, the creation of jobs, a rising high-tech and IT industry and urban modernization and expansion improved the nation's national image. Good crop harvests and strong industrial expansion also helped the economy. The Government reformed the tax system, increased the pace of reforms and pro-business initiatives, major irrigation and housing schemes and so on. The political energies of the BJP shifted to the rising urban middle-class and young people, who were positive and enthusiastic about the major economic expansion and future of the country.
In August 2003, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced before Parliament his "absolute last" effort to achieve peace with Pakistan. Although the diplomatic process never truly set-off immediately, visits were exchanged by high-level officials and the military stand-off ended. The Pakistani President and Pakistani politicians, civil and religious leaders hailed this initiative as did the leaders of America, Europe and much of the world. In July 2003, Prime Minister Vajpayee, visited China, and met with various Chinese leaders. He recognised Tibet, as a part of China, which was reacted to positively, by the Chinese leadership, who the following year, recognised Sikkim, as a part of India. Sino-Indian Relations, improved greatly, in the following years.
In November-December 2003, the BJP won three major state elections, fought mainly on development issues, without ideological campaigns. A major public relations campaign was launched to reach out to Muslims and stop the 2002 controversies from haunting the party's future. But the attention of the media and of millions now moved from Vajpayee to his more possible successor, L.K. Advani, although the question was never directly raised or contested in any way. Vajpayee's age, failing health and diminished physical and mental vigor were obvious factors in such speculations. Advani assumed greater responsibilities in the party, and although no perceivable conflict has been known to arise between the longtime friends and political colleagues, several embarrassing statements were made. Once Vajpayee said "Advani would lead the BJP in the elections," prompting Advani to clarify that he would merely lead the election campaign, not the party. And then the BJP President Venkiah Naidu used mythological references to depict Vajpayee as a Vikas Purush, (Man of Progress), comparing him toBhishma Pitamah of the Mahabharata epic, a man respected by all political outfits and hundreds of millions of people. Advani was called the "Loh Purush" (Iron Man), a more potent reference suggestive of future developments.
As the BJP prepared for general elections in 2004, either early or late, Vajpayee was still the choice of the BJP, and crucially of the wider NDA for the prime minister's job.
However, despite it's best efforts, the coalition - during camapign, controversial and ideological issues had been side-stepped in favor of bread-butter economic issues - lost almost half the seat it had, with several prominent cabinet ministers getting defeated. The congress(I), led by Sonia Gandhi became the single largest party and along with many minor parties formed the United Progressive Alliance. With the conditional support of the leftist parties from the outside, the UPA formed government under Dr. Manmohan Singh.
Vajpayee attended the swearing-in ceremony of the new government despite his party's decision to boycott it. Vajpayee was criticized for sacrificing core issues like Hindutva and the Ram Temple inorder to please Muslim voters (the BJP lost the Muslim vote by a heavy margin). Vajpayee expressed his anger and frustration at being blamed and at a high-level party meeting, he decided to give up the position of the Leader of the Opposition to Lal Krishna Advani. However, he retained his post as Chairman of the National Democratic Alliance.
In December of 2005, Vajpayee announced his retirement from active politics, declaring that he would not participate in the next general election. At a rally in the western city of Mumbai, Vajpayee said "I will not participate in any electoral politics. There are many other leaders to take forward the work which I and other senior leaders have been doing. In a now famous statement at the BJP's silver Jubilee rally at Mumbai's historic Shivaji Park, Vajpayee announced that "from now onwards, Lal Krishna Advani and Pramod Mahajan will be the Ram-Laxman (the two godly brothers much revered and worshipped by Hindus) of the BJP."
Atal Bihari Vajpayee sowed the seeds and rose with the growing nationalist movement in Indian politics. For four decades he was the flag-bearer, icon and undisputed leader of the Hindu nationalist political movement, working steadily through years of defeat and desolation to foster a major national movement, broad support amongst hundreds of millions and the leadership of the world's largest democracy and most diverse nation.
However, the Vajpayee government was criticized over its ignorance of the issues and concerns of India's poor millions, over corruption scandals, and the episodes of communal violence and rise of both Hindu and Muslim radicalism in politics. While praised for his leadership during the Kargil War and for his peace efforts with Pakistan, the Vajpayee administration was blamed for not being able to detect and prevent two serious terrorist attacks on the country, and an incursion into Indian sovereign territory.
Vajpayee led a diverse, fractious coalition to complete a full five-year term in office, be the guiding light over a collage of political chaos. He gave stability and unity when the country was the least united, and security when the country was most susceptible. This included not only the security of the borders from invasion, but of the security of 100 million families with the provision of jobs and education in a solid, hopeful economic future, and the strategic national future security.
Despite the rejection of his party in 2004, Vajpayee has retained a position of esteem and respect amongst common people seldom offered to politicians in India. He was conferred Padma Vibhushan in 1992, Lokmanya Tilak Puruskar and the Pt. Govind Ballabh Pant Award for the Best Parliamentarian, both in 1994.