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Vajpayee completes 5 years in power

March 19, 2003 17:34 IST

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose first government collapsed in 13 days, on Wednesday completed five years in office.

The landmark comes after years of instability of non-Congress governments and almost four decades of uninterrupted Congress rule.

The earlier non-Congress prime ministers, who all had Congress upbringing, fell like nine-pins with only the late Morarji Desai remaining at the helm for two-and-a-half years as the head of the Janata Party government in the late seventies.

While V P Singh, H D Deve Gowda and Inder Kumar Gujral lasted for around 11 months each, Chandra Shekhar was around for four months and Charan Singh for three.

Once dubbed a mukhauta (mask) of the Bharatiya Janata Party by party ideologue Govindacharya, Vajpayee wove a combination of political parties, many of them regional, to keep the Congress at bay.

By cobbling up the National Democratic Alliance, Vajpayee ended the 'untouchability' of the BJP.

With a political career spanning five decades, Vajpayee became the natural leader of the NDA due to his image as a sober politician with a liberal aura surrounding him despite reservations over his party.

The backing of Lal Kishenchand Advani, who was instrumental in the BJP's phoenix-like rise by leading the Ram Janambhoomi movement in the 1990s, was another factor that catapulted Vajpayee to the top political post.

It was Advani who had first publicly proposed Vajpayee's name for the prime ministership much before the 1996 elections.

The rise of Vajpayee coincided with a period when the Congress failed to get its act together in the 1996 and 1998 polls, first under P V Narasimha Rao and then the late Sitaram Kesri.

The Pokhran nuclear tests in 1998 were the high point of Vajpayee's prime ministership, but it failed to pay him any political dividends vis-a-vis his allies.

Perpetual pulls and pressures marred his first 13 months in power by the likes of AIADMK leader J Jayalalithaa and Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee.

In 1999, just one vote caused his government's downfall.

In his third tenure, Vajpayee's leadership suffered a severe setback when the BJP met its waterloo in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi as rising prices of onions brought tears to the eyes of the saffron party.

If there has been a dominating theme in Vajpayee's stint at the top, it is the three Ks -- Kargil, Kandahar and Kashmir.

It is a measure of the shrewd politician in him that he successfully returned to power in 1999 by projecting the unsuccessful Pakistan-sponsored intrusion in Kargil as a victory for the Indian armed forces.

When Indian Airlines' flight IC-814 was hijacked to Kandahar, it marked a low point in Vajpayee's third tenure in contrast to the bus journey to Lahore, which was one of his bold initiatives.

The terrorism menace continued to trouble Vajpayee's government and things came to such a pass that the heart of Indian democracy -- Parliament -- was attacked on December 13, 2001.

The attack was preceded by a terrorist strike on the Jammu and Kashmir assembly and the failed Agra summit, which was one more attempt to mend fences with Pakistan in the post-Kargil period.

The NDA rule witnessed matters worsening in the sensitive border state with no sign of any letup in Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.

The aftermath of December 13, 2001 saw India's relations with Pakistan touch a new low and the armed forces of the two countries in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation for several months.

Earlier, in a bid to disentangle the Kashmir imbroglio, Vajpayee had declared a unilateral ceasefire (by the security forces) in J&K, but with no success.

However, credit goes to Vajpayee for the successful conduct of assembly elections in the strife-torn state, which independent observers found to be free and fair.

On the domestic front, Vajpayee's leadership could not save the BJP from losing citadel after citadel to the Sonia Gandhi-led Congress, which now rules in 16 states.

The BJP emerged a poor third in the politically sensitive Uttar Pradesh and the party had to once again align with the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party to retain power.

Despite the setbacks, his leadership remained unscathed.

A Narendra Modi-inspired BJP victory in Gujarat last year proved a major morale booster for the BJP ahead of the Lok Sabha polls next year.

A highlight of his third tenure has been the gradual sidelining of the coalition partners.

Now there is a certain stridency in the BJP's Hindutva talk as well as in the rantings of the Sangh Parivar outfits.

The biggest crisis for the prime minister came with the Tehelka expose, which tainted the BJP's image of being a ‘party with a difference' as its president Bangaru Laxman was caught on camera accepting money from journalists masquerading as arms dealers.

Vajpayee's tenure also saw members of the Sangh Parivar adopt a more strident pose what with the likes of K C Sudershan, Pravin Togadia and Dattopant Thengdi constantly breathing down his neck.

Though the septuagenarian leader had left Delhi twice for knee replacement surgery two years back, he did not formally name a second in command during his absence.

But in July 2002, he elevated Advani to the post of deputy prime minister thereby putting at rest all speculation about an internecine struggle at the top.

Observers say he has virtually named his successor.

Notwithstanding stiff opposition from the Sangh Parivar, Vajpayee continued the process of economic reforms, including divestment, but opted for the middle path of non-confrontation.

His pet initiative is the National Highways Project, and he has also taken initiatives for interlinking rivers for better distribution of water resources across the country.

Despite doubts among economists, Vajpayee talks of ensuring an eight per cent annual GDP growth.

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