SHRI ATAL BIHARI VAJPAYEE
First Term: May 1996

Political energy and expansion made BJP the single-largest political party in the Lok Sabha elected in 1996. Asked to form the government, A.B. Bajpai was sworn in as Prime Minister, but the BJP failed to gather enough support from other parties to form a majority. Bajpai resigned after just 13 days, when it became clear that he could not garner a majority.



Second Term: 1998-1999

After the fall of two governments by the third-front between 1996 and 1998, the Parliament was dissolved and fresh elections were held. These elections again put the BJP at the head. This time, a cohesive bloc of political parties lined up with it to form the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and A.B. Bajpai was sworn in as the Prime Minister. The NDA proved its majority in parliament. Towards the end of 1998 however, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) under J. Jayalalitha withdrew its support from the 13-month old government. The government lost the ensuing vote of confidence motion by a single vote. As the Opposition was unable to come up with the numbers to form the new government, the country returned to elections with Bajpai remaining the "care-taker Prime Minister".



Nuclear bomb testing

In May 1998, India conducted five underground nuclear tests in Pokhran, Rajasthan. The five tests shocked and surprised the world, especially considering that the government had been in power for only a month. Two weeks later, Pakistan responded with its own nuclear weapon tests, making it the newest declared nation with nuclear weapons. 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 Bajpai's popularity and the BJP's prestige rose in response. During his administration, Bajpai introduced many important economic and infrastructural reforms domestically including, encouraging the private sector and foreign investments; reducing governmental waste; encouraging research and development and privatizing of some government owned corporations.



The Lahore summit

In late 1998 and early 1999, Bajpai began a push for a full-scale diplomatic peace process with Pakistan. With the historic inauguration of the Delhi-Lahore bus service in February 1999, The NDA proved its majority in parliament. Towards the end of 1998 however, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) under J. Jayalalitha withdrew its support from the 13-month old government. Bajpai initiated a new peace process aimed towards permanently resolving the Kashmir dispute and other territorial/nuclear/strategic conflicts with Pakistan. The resultant Lahore Declaration espoused a commitment to dialogue, expanded trade relations and the goal of denuclearized South Asia, and mutual friendship. This eased the tension created by the 1998 nuclear tests, not only within the two nations, but also in South Asia and the rest of the world. The Bajpai 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 Bajpai administration was reduced to a caretaker status pending fresh elections scheduled for October.



Kargil invasion

More importantly and soon after, it was revealed that millitants and non-uniformed Pakistani soldiers (many with official identifications and Pakistan Army's custom weaponry) had infiltrated into the Kashmir Valley and captured control of border hilltops, unmanned border posts and were spreading out fast. The incursion was centered around the town of Kargil, but also included the Batalik and Akhnoor sectors and include artillery exchanges at the Siachen Glacier. Indian army units were rushed into Kashmir in response. Operation Vijay (1999), launched in June 1999, saw the Indian military fighting thousands of militants and soldiers amidst heavy artillery shelling and while facing extremely cold weather, snow and treacherous terrain at the high altitude. Over 500 Indian soldiers were killed in the three-month long Kargil War, and it is estimated around 600-4000 Pakistani militants and soldiers died as well. India pushed back the Pakistani militants and Northern Light Infantry soldiers. Almost 70% of the territory was recaptured by India. With news of Pakistan planning to launch a nuclear attack or a nuclear threat in the face of a lost war with India, Nawaz Sharif was summoned to the US by Bill Clinton. Pakistan's army claims to have shot down 2 air force jets and the Indian Air Force acknowledged one loss to enemy missiles and attributed the other loss to engine flameout. The mutilation of the body of pilot Ajay Ahuja inflamed public opinion in India. After heavy losses and a recalcitrant general in Musharraf, and with both the United States and China refusing to condone the incursion or threaten India to stop its military operations, Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif asked the remaining militants to stop and withdraw to positions along the LoC. The militants were not willing to accept orders from Nawaz Sharif while the NLI soldiers withdrew. The militants were killed by the army or forced to withdraw in skirmishes which went beyond the announcement of withdrawal by Pakistan.



Third Term: 1999-2004

On 13 October 1999, Atal Bihari Vajpayee took oath as Prime Minister of India for the third time. The BJP-led NDA had won 303 seats in the 543 seat Lok Sabha in the aftermath of Kargil operations,thereby securing a comfortable, stable majority. The coalition government that was formed lasted its full term of 5 years – the only non-Congress government to do so.



National Highways Development Project, foreign policy and economic reform

Vajpayee oversaw his National Highway Development Project and Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana 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 a 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 HRD 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 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. In 2001, the Vajpayee government launched the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, which aimed at improving the quality of education in primary and secondary schools.



Remainder of term

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 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 recognized Tibet, as a part of China, which was reacted to positively, by the Chinese leadership, who the following year, recognized Sikkim, as a part of India. Sino-Indian Relations, improved greatly, in the following years. In November–December 2003, the Bharatiya Janata Party (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 Venkaiah Naidu used mythological references to depict Vajpayee as a Vikas Purush, (Man of Progress), comparing him to Bhishma Pitamah of the Mahabharata epic, a man respected by all political outfits and hundreds of millions of people. As the BJP prepared for general elections in 2004, Vajpayee was still the choice of the BJP, and crucially of the wider NDA, for the Prime Minister's job.