Atal Bihari Vajpayee, one of India’s most important modern political leaders, died Aug. 16. Vajpayee left an enduring mark on his country’s politics and its policies. He will be most remembered as the man who oversaw nuclear tests that officially signaled India’s entry into the club of countries that possess nuclear weapons, thereby launching an arms race and nuclear confrontation with its neighbor, Pakistan. Significantly, however, Vajpayee likewise strove to ensure that relations with Islamabad remained peaceful. Vajpayee also played key roles in building his country’s relationship with Japan.
Born in the central city of Gwalior in 1924, Vajpayee was one of seven children in a family whose father was a schoolteacher and Hindu scholar. As a teenager, he joined the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a group that was briefly banned after a former member assassinated Mohandas Gandhi in 1948. He studied politics at university and became a social worker and later a journalist. He joined a then-new Hindu nationalist political party, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, which became the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is currently the ruling party in India.
His parliamentary career began in 1957, when he was elected to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament. He was re-elected nine times and also served two terms in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house. A distinguished orator, he was considered an intellectual with a populist touch, a nationalist who was not a fanatic. He was also known as one of India’s few uncorruptable politicians.
Vajpayee served as foreign minister in a coalition government from 1977 to 1979. During that time, he made a trip to China that was widely viewed as restoring normalcy to the India-China relationship after a 22-year deep freeze. He consolidated his legacy with Beijing when later, as prime minister, he officially recognized that Tibet was part of China.
When the coalition government in which he served lost power in 1980, he helped found the BJP and became its first president. His moderate image helped overcome doubts about the party’s orientation and intentions and is his first important legacy. In 1997, after the BJP won its first national election, Vajpayee was asked to form a government; he failed after two weeks and was forced to resign. He returned to power less than a year later after masterminding a disparate coalition of 22 parties — an accomplishment for which he deserved most, if not all, of the credit — and served as prime minister from 1999 to 2004, the first non-Congress party government to fulfill its entire five-year term.
Just after his term as prime minister began, India stunned the world with a series of nuclear tests in May 1998. The nuclear capability is Vajpayee’s second legacy. He did his best to assuage international concern by announcing: “We will not use these weapons against anybody. But to defend ourselves, if the need arises, we will not hesitate.” Regardless of his intent, anxiety mounted when Pakistan promptly followed with its own nuclear tests. Given the adversarial relationship between the two neighbors, which had frequently resulted in armed clashes, those fears were real.
Cognizant of the danger, Vajpayee commenced a peace process with his Pakistani counterpart, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, going so far as to travel to Lahore in northeastern Pakistan by bus in February 1999. That gambit fell apart when Pakistani military forces and militants launched an offensive against Indian forces in the Kargil Mountains of Kashmir, bitterly disputed territory claimed by both countries. It is estimated that nearly 1,200 soldiers from each country died in the 11-week conflict, although some put the death toll at more than three times that number. Vajpayee won international applause for his restraint; Sharif was soon overthrown in a military coup. The peace process continued, however, and remains the basic framework for negotiations between the two countries to this day.
By 2004, the BJP and Vajpayee were spent. The ruling coalition was defeated by Congress in national elections and Vajpayee surrendered the prime minister’s office to Manmohan Singh. He retired from politics the following year, although BJP members, including current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, often referred to him as an icon and a uniting force in a divided country.
Vajpayee was central to forging the modern Japan-India relationship. Tokyo was angered and dismayed by the 1998 nuclear tests: It suspended all political exchanges and cut off all economic assistance. In August 2000, New Delhi hosted Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, and the two men agreed to establish the “Global Partnership between Japan and India.” Central to the relationship were efforts to work toward the reduction and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. With that foundation laid, yen loans were resumed in October 2001, and Vajpayee visited Japan in December of that year to meet with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Vajpayee was a genuine statesmen, whose character and wisdom served his country and the world well.