Elections that shaped India | The Vajpayee years

As the clock ticks down to the general elections of 2024, The Hindu takes a look at the historic elections that have shaped the polity and political landscape of our nation since Independence. We examine the Vajpayee years, its highs and lows, and the legacy of this era.

Updated - May 24, 2024 12:54 pm IST

Published - April 08, 2024 10:00 am IST

File photo: Former Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, being garlanded at a rally to commemorate the death anniversary of founder of Jana Sangh, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, coinciding with the BJP’s National Executive meeting in Mumbai on June 23, 2004.

File photo: Former Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, being garlanded at a rally to commemorate the death anniversary of founder of Jana Sangh, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, coinciding with the BJP’s National Executive meeting in Mumbai on June 23, 2004. | Photo Credit: The Hindu/Vivek Bendre

Atal Bihari Vajpayee held the post of prime minister for three non-consecutive terms in 1996, 1998-99, and from 1999-2004, although he had been involved in public life since 1957. He was elected 10 times to the Lok Sabha from four different States and was also a member of Rajya Sabha twice.

In his late teens, he was involved with the Quit India Movement in 1942. He was one of the founders of Jan Sangh in 1957, the right-wing organisation that merged with several other parties to form the Janata Party during the 1975 Emergency period. Jan Sangh also played a crucial role in shaping modern-day BJP, often considered its successor.

Early stints

Mr. Vajpayee was appointed the Minister of External Affairs after the 1977 Lok Sabha election, where Janata Party emerged victorious. In 1984, the newly founded BJP could win only two seats, and its leaders decided to throw their weight behind the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. It paid off, and Mr. Vajpayee emerged as the prime ministerial candidate in 1995. In 1996, he led a 13-day government.

The 1998 Lok Sabha elections were held three years ahead of schedule after I.K. Gujral’s government collapsed. With the support of regional parties like Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK and Telugu Desam Party, Mr. Vajpayee was sworn in again as the prime minister in March 1998, this time for 13 months. But in those 13 months, he achieved some significant landmarks to add to his legacy.

Pokhran and Pakistan

Soon after taking over as the prime minister, Mr. Vajpayee oversaw the Pokhran nuclear test in May 1998. Popularly called Pokhran II, the series of five nuclear tests conducted at Indian Army’s Pokhran Test Range in Rajasthan was the country’s second attempt at nuclear tests. (The first one was done under Indira Gandhi in 1974.) 

Pokhran II was followed by a slew of international sanctions. The tests shocked the world, primarily because of the secretive mannerin which they were conducted. India-U.S. relations hit rock bottom, but Indian diplomacy under Mr. Vajpayee and his Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh eventually prevailed. Mr. Singh conducted talks with the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott on nuclear policy, including threat perception and future security plans. Although India did not sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, against the wishes of the U.S., it declared a moratorium on testing; agreed to join the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty negotiations without halting fissile material production; reaffirmed minimum deterrent without giving any number of warheads; and agreed to strengthen export controls. India also declared a no-first-use policy and commitment to disarmament. Following the negotiations, U.S. President Bill Clinton visited India in March 2000 — the first President to do so in 22 years— thus solidifying a diplomatic win for Mr. Vajpayee, aided by Mr. Singh.

Also read | The Janata Parivar in electoral politics: a timeline

Mr. Vajpayee also took multiple steps towards peace with Pakistan. In February 1999, Prime Minister Vajpayee inaugurated the Delhi-Lahore bus service. He boarded the bus with his entourage and was greeted by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the border. However, only a few months later, the Kargil War broke out. It was one of the biggest national security challenges faced by Mr. Vajpayee while serving as the caretaker prime minister of India.

In the summer of 1999, India was caught off-guard as disguised Pakistani soldiers occupied the winter-vacated icy heights in Kargil and adjoining areas on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC). India eventually drove the intruders away, but as a strategy refused to cross the LoC or open new fronts.

Navy Chief Admiral Sushil Kumar later called the Kargil war Mr. Vajpayee’s “finest hour” during a book launch in 2019.

The 1999 election

The third time’s the charm, and so was Mr. Vajpayee’s third tenure as the Prime Minister of India.

The 1999 Lok Sabha election was held between September 5 and October 3. It was the longest political campaign for any general election in independent India until the time. The National Democratic Alliance won with a resounding majority, and Mr. Vajpayee was elected the prime minister of India. He led the first non-Congress coalition government to a complete term, cementing his position in the record books of Indian democracy.

Polling lasted almost a month, and the Election Commission of India was not happy with it. Dr. M.S. Gill, then the Chief Election Commissioner, said at a press conference in Bengaluru that it was the “making of political parties.”In the first round of polling, the use of electronic voting machines, still new at the time, was expanded to 21 parliamentary constituencies.

Much like today, the discourse during campaigning by political parties in 1999 was also negative in approach and devoid of substantive issues.Although the Kargil war, government stability, and “swadeshi versus videshi” (India-made versus foreign-made) did make the cut, both Congress and the BJP barely made efforts to go beyond restating their known positions.

The 1999 election also witnessed some bizarre incidents during the polls. At a booth in West Singhbhum district, polling agents of contesting parties cast all 523 votes as soon as the gates were opened in the morning. Some voters lodged complaints with the polling officer, and the exercise was later cancelled.

Meanwhile, at a voting station in the Chandni Chowk constituency of Delhi, polling agents rechristened a woman after it was found that someone else had cast her vote. 51-year-old Vijaylakshmi was told that her vote had already been cast when the two agents agreed to let her vote in the name of Prabha. However, the age gap between the two was significant, and Ms. Vijaylakshmi picked the name of Ms. Kaushalya from the list to vote.According to reports, complaints of bogus voting were also received from other constituencies in Delhi.

A joint family in Mumbai’s Dadar area had a record number of 65 eligible voters who claimed to participate in elections religiously. In Jaipur, the ‘Mathura waalon ki haveli’ had 500 voters — all related to each other.

Some violent incidents were also recorded in the run up to the election. In Assam’s Dhubri constituency, voting was put off till October 28 after the BJP candidate was killed. Polling in Kashmir’s Anantnag district was countermanded in the second phase after the BJP nominee was killed in a landmine blast. [PDF titled 19991004 Polling] A plot to kill then-Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah also surfaced in the area.

Before voting, shoot-at-sight orders were issued against poll offenders in the high-profile Amethi constituency in Uttar Pradesh where Congress leader Sonia Gandhi eventually won against BJP’s Sanjay Singh.

The Congress dwindles

After India gained Independence in 1947, the Indian National Congress established itself as the dominant political party in the country. This could be attributed mainly to the party’s role in securing freedom from British rule, the popularity of leaders of the Nehru-Gandhi family, and largely secular and socio-economic policies that resonated with the majority of Indian citizens. However, the political landscape began to shift with the rise of ideological alternatives like the BJP and popular leaders like L.K. Advani and Mr. Vajpayee.

Before Mr. Vajpayee rose to prime ministership, non-Congress coalition governments in India struggled to operate. This was due to a variety of factors like ideological differences which made it challenging to reconcile differing schools of thought and forge a common agenda, and lack of central leadership — which was where Congress excelled. Political parties mostly existed at regional levels, but there were few to none that could compete with Congress nationally. Mr. Vajpayee changed that with the BJP, and the NDA at large.

Mr. Vajpayee’s electoral achievements

Mr. Vajpayee recognised the importance of building a coalition to challenge the dominance of the Congress party. He engaged in dialogue and negotiations with various regional and ideological parties, working towards a common agenda that would appeal to their respective bases. In fact, Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK was BJP’s principal alliance partner in 1998, and even caused the downfall of the government after it withdrew support to NDA. Other regional parties, like the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, Samata Party in Bihar, the Shiromani Akali Dal, and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra were the regional players that Mr. Vajpayee brought together to effectively challenge Congress. These regional alliances brought immense electoral advantage for the BJP, and gave it a victory that the party alone couldn’t have fathomed.

However, despite all his positives, due to the inherently unstable nature of coalitions, Mr. Vajpayee was unable to save his government when AIADMK decided to withdraw support in early 1999. On April 17 that year, the government fell after Mr. Vajpayee lost the vote of confidence by just one vote. That did not, however, dent his political aspirations much as he was able to return as the prime minister in the Lok Sabha elections held just a few months later.

Among the significant achievements of Mr. Vajpayee as the leader of NDA, continuous attempts to establish peace with Pakistan are of great significance. Despite the Kargil War and an attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001 by perpetrators that were later identified to belong to Pakistan-based terrorist organisations Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, Mr. Vajpayee did not stop trying to broker peace with the neighbouring country. He visited Pakistan in January 2004 to attend the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit. In a bilateral communique at the end of the visit, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf gave the assurance that he would not permit any territory under Pakistan’s control to be used to support terrorism in any manner.

Another significant achievement of Prime Minister Vajpayee was the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. This flagship programme of the NDA government was launched in 2001 and was aimed at universalising elementary education. The 86th Amendment of the Indian Constitution, enacted in 2002, added Article 21A which reads, “The state shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of six to fourteen years in such manner as the state may, by law, determine.” Mr. Vajpayee’s flagship programme focused on bridging social and gender gaps in primary education as well as improving infrastructure, facilities, and resources in schools at all levels of administrative divisions.

Mr. Vajpayee also gave great impetus to the infrastructure sector in India, with schemes like the Golden Quadrilateral Project and the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana.

The Golden Quadrilateral Project was an ambitious national highway project lto connect the four metros – Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai— to enhance connectivity and reduce travel time between the major cities of India. The Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana was launched by the central government on December 25, 2000 to provide all-weather access to eligible, unconnected locations with population up to 500 based on the 2001 Census. For special category States, including those in the Northeast, Jammu and Kashmir (then a State) ), Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand, the population criteria was 250 and above.

While he enjoyed many successes as the Prime Minister of India, Mr. Vajpayee also weathered a few storms. One of his most significant challenges was the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Godhra riots 2002

In March 2002, State-wide riots broke out in Gujarat following the burning of two coaches of Sabarmati Express that killed 58 passengers in Godhra. More than a thousand people were killed and over one lakh displaced in the riots. The victims were primarily Muslims, and the attackers Hindu. Narendra Modi, the current prime minister of India, was the Chief Minister of Gujarat at the time and was criticised for not doing enough to control the riots. Mr. Vajpayee reportedly expressed “distinct disapproval” to Mr. Modi for his handling of the post-Godhra situation. According to reports from the time, the opinion among Prime Minister Vajpayee’s aides was unanimous – that any talk of “Hindu consolidation” yielding electoral dividend for the BJP was simple foolishness. Mr. Vajpayee and Union Home Minister Mr. Advani directed Mr. Modi to undertake relief and rehabilitation for the riot-affected citizens.

While some sections of the society expected Mr. Vajpayee to force Mr. Modi to resign, it was not to be. Instead, the Prime Minister suggested a variety of confidence-building measures to the Gujarat Chief Minister, which included constructing houses for those affected in riots and ensuring their employment.Mr. Vajpayee also announced a rehabilitation package and central assistance for the victims of the Gujarat riots and instructed Mr. Modi to observe his “raj dharma” without showing any discrimination based on caste, creed, or religion among those affected by the riots.

Mr. Vajpayee’s legacy

Mr. Vajpayee ran a successful non-Congress coalition to full-term and made notable strides in in diplomacy, foreign policy, and governance, showing that statecraft was no longer the preserve of the Congress party. It paved the way for a more diverse and dynamic political landscape in India. The period also marked a significant departure from the idea that only Congress had the expertise to run governments to full term at the Centre. Mr. Vajpayee’s years as the prime minister provided legitimacy to alternative political choices for citizens, which could also provide stable governance.

Mr. Vajpayee not only ran a successful government, he challenged the idea of Congress’ monopoly in governance.

A successful term for the NDA government led by the BJP also ended the political untouchability of the party. BJP had faced isolation and exclusion in its early years due to its Hindu nationalist ideology and association with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. It could build limited political alliances and was seen as polarising in political circles. With Mr. Vajpayee’s success, which also spelled success for BJP as a national political party, this political untouchability ended. BJP, at least in the Vajpayee years, broadened its appeal by building multiple regional alliances and catering to their needs which eventually translated into electoral gains for the party. Mr. Vajpayee could rightly be called the torchbearer of the party’s acceptance and rise to power.

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