From Y2K to Rafale: Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a man of progress and science
The veteran leader was more than just a 'poet prime minister'. He laid the roadmap for several key science, tech and defence breakthroughs.
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India's former Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was many things.
Born on December 25, 1924, in Gwalior, 'Atal Ji' joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) at an early age in 1939, only to be drawn towards Communist ideology in 1942. He followed the path till 1945, after which he once again looked towards the RSS for ideological guidance and joined the organisation as a full-time worker in 1947.
He was also part of India's struggle for Independence — and was even jailed briefly for opposing British colonial rule.
Post-independence, his love for writing saw him start a career in journalism. However, he quit journalism shortly after as he was deputed by the RSS to the Bhartiya Jana Sangh which nominated him as its candidate for the 1955 bypoll for the Lucknow Lok Sabha seat.
Though away from journalism, Vajpayee's love for writing and poetry remained undisturbed. Through his politics, the "poet prime minister" found a platform to further his love for poetry.
But, apart from being a poet, a politician, and a journalist, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was also a man of progress and science.
During his time in the Prime Minister's office, he took a number of key steps that helped India grow exponentially in the field of science and technology. He also signed off on several projects that have helped entire cities to progress into technological hubs.
'Father of modern telecom in India'
Vajpayee's biggest contribution to modern India is arguably the work he put in on the National Telecom Policy in 1999. This landmark reform passed under Vajpayee's governance helped the industry overcome some of its toughest challenges in its early days, and afforded it the platform to thrive in the future.
Though not talked about much, experts and industry stakeholders hold Vajpayee in high regard for this reform. After his demise, Bharti Enterprise Chairman, and the founder of Bharti Airtel, Sunil Bharti Mittal termed Vajpayee "the father of modern telecommunication in the country", while Member of Parliament Rajeev Chandrasekhar, who earlier owned the BPL mobile service, said that Vajpayee was responsible for opening up the telecom sector and for providing policy impetus to expand the telecommunication sector in India.
Vajpayee is also credited with separating the Department of Telecom from the service provider arm BSNL. This particular move led to BSNL gaining a significant market share and as per union communication and information technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, helped BSNL amass a profit of Rs 10,000 crore by the time Atal Bihari Vajpayee left the Prime Minister's office in 2004.
Apart from ushering in a new era for the telecom industry, Vajpayee was also responsible for some of the biggest reforms in the defence sector in India. However, his most remarkable step towards ensuring the safety and sovereignty of the country was giving the go-ahead for Pokhran II.
A technological milestone for the defence establishment of the country, Pokhran II made India only the sixth nuclear-armed nation in the world at the time of the tests in 1998. Apart from being a milestone in technology, the tests also proved to be a strategical masterstroke as Pokhran II came only a month ahead of Pakistan showing off its own nuclear arsenal, at the Ras Koh Hills in the Chagai District of Balochistan.
Push for progress
Even though the UPA-I government (2004-2009) is credited with driving the Indian economy to new heights, the reality is that much of the groundwork for the progress was set up during the Vajpayee-led NDA government in power during 1998-2004.
As this India Today report explains, under his tenure, the country's inflation came down and India maintained a GDP rate of eight per cent, and all this, despite facing catastrophic events including the Kargil conflict (1999), two cyclones (1999 and 2000), a massive earthquake (2001), a horrible drought (2002-2003), an oil crises (2003).
Emergence of the IT sector
Vajpayee, with the help of ministers in his cabinet, also laid the platform for the emergence of the IT sector in the country. Case in point, the steps taken to mitigate the Y2K crisis of 1999.
Faced with the Y2K bug that threatened to bring all computer-based services to a halt, the $6 billion strong IT industry in the country at the time was staring down the bottom end of a deep barrel. But Vajpayee, aided by his finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, came up with the budgetary allocations to protect the then-nascent sector. In his Budget speech in 1999, Yashwant Sinha proposed on the floor of the House to make all expenditure incurred by IT firms in making their systems Y2K-compliant as part of the government's revenue expenditure in the next financial year.
This particular move allowed the Indian IT industry to emerge relatively unscathed from the crisis, and grow into the more than $150 billion industry that it is today.
Chandrayaan-I and the Rafale deal
Another field which benefitted greatly from Vajpayee's policy-making is the science and technology sector.
The country's first lunar project, Chandrayaan I, was conceived under Vajpayee's governance. Launched by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in October 2008, the project was first announced on India's 56th Independence Day by the "poet prime minister" who envisioned an India free of "hunger and want". Announcing the project, he said, "Our country is now ready to fly high in the field of science. I am pleased to announce that India will send her own spacecraft to the moon by 2008. It is being named Chandrayaan."
Little known is also the fact that the 126 fighter aircraft Rafale deal too was conceived during the Vajpayee government's tenure.
#India We were extremely saddened to learn of the death of former Indian prime minister Atal Behari #Vajpayee.His name remains linked to Franco-Indian friendship which he shaped by launching the strategic partnership uniting our two countries since 1998.https://t.co/nHLFkmgsMi pic.twitter.com/I4wFaSnU3D— France Diplomacy🇫🇷 (@francediplo_EN) August 17, 2018
Vajpayee: A man of science and progress
There is no denying that Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a master politician and a man of art. His skill for prose and penchant for peace marked him out as a political figure that towered above everyone else. As many would attest, he was also instrumental in ushering a period of peace not only between India and its neighbour Pakistan, but also, mainland India with its jugular vein, Kashmir.
However, on a day when his mortal self is reduced to ashes, to forget his lasting contributions to the fields of science and technology would be nothing short of a crime. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was more than just a "poet prime minister". He was a man of science and progress, who, with his efforts, has laid the groundwork for a country that one day would be free of "hunger and want".