It was 1996. The 13-day long BJP-led NDA government was falling for lack of majority in Parliament following a hung verdict of the people in the general election of that year. The PV Narasimha Rao government had gone, with the BJP emerging as the single largest party.

Live telecast of parliamentary proceedings had begun recently, albeit limiting it to the Zero Hour and Question Hour. However, the trust vote was a big occasion. Doordarshan had to broadcast it. And it would not be an exaggeration to say that Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Sushma Swaraj floored the House with brilliant oratory.

This columnist was not a journalist in the 1990s. The day after the short-lived Vajpayee government fell, all my colleagues in the multinational bank I was working with — citizens of Delhi who used to turn out in pathetically low numbers during elections — were all praise for the words of Vajpayee heard on television the previous day.

Remember, it was not an age of Doordarshan’s monopoly. Cable television had arrived more than five years ago, with Delhi’s viewers having access to 25-50 odd channels. They were already spoilt for choice as far as films and music were concerned. NDTV had begun as a production house, making programmes for Rupert Murdoch’s Star News. Star Plus was not wholly an entertainment channel. The media had coined a term for that genre: “Infotainment”.

Ignoring all those choices on offer, the employees of a corporate house were watching a parliamentary debate the previous day on a “boring”, “sarkariDoordarshan!

A brief era of political instability followed the fall of the first Vajpayee government. Two uninspiring prime ministers, HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral, turned politics a dreary subject once again for the apolitical people of the country by and large. And then Vajpayee returned.

He returned with a bang. Literally! India tested three nuclear devices on May 11, 1998. This time, there was no hypocrisy or camouflage of “demonstrative capability” of Pokhran I of Indira Gandhi’s era. The “Buddha smiled” again, but with the assertion that the Indian nuclear bomb would be used militarily if required. Soon, Vajpayee would unveil the “no first use” policy, which assured the world India was still not an aggressor, in keeping with its glorious history spanning thousands of years where no Indian conqueror was heard of crossing continents to establish his rule in alien lands.

The explosions caught the world unawares. No intelligence agency had been able to detect the preparations for the tests. One may recall that a detection of the effort had led Narasimha Rao to abandon the previous plan of the Government of India. Vajpayee’s initiative was so secretive, it was said that even the then Deputy Prime Minister, LK Advani, did not know of it until it happened. Reportedly, just some key nuclear scientists were involved in the process and, in the political executive, the then Prime Minister alone knew about it.

The US-led international community imposed a host of economic sanctions on India. Russia and France exercised restraint.

Two days later, India tested two more nuclear devices. People celebrated this mark of assertion across the country even as Pakistan soon followed suit, ‘testing’ its allegedly China-made devices (Nawaz Sharif had declared long ago Pakistan was a nuclear-powered country).

Detractors belittled India’s achievement by pointing at the Kargil War of 1999, claiming that India’s atomic and hydrogen bombs could not deter Pakistan. In the counter-argument, nationalists said that the mutually assured destruction kept Pakistan away from dropping a bomb on Indian soil.

Which of the two sides won the debate became evident when Vajpayee led a 23-party NDA to electoral victory in 1999 after his previous government was pulled down by the merit of one vote in Parliament. Recall that Indians were still celebrating the victory of the nation on Kargil’s heights (May-July 1999) when they went to vote (September-October 1999).

The economy could have slumped due to the sanctions, as the situation worsened due to two droughts during the NDA I era. It did not because Vajpayee reformed the economy at a pace greater than that of the first economic liberator, Rao. Within the first 17 months of Vajpayee rule, as many PSUs as those privatised during the five years of Rao had gone to private owners. The market’s ‘animal spirits’ had been unleashed.

Beyond the chaste Hindi of Vajpayee, what made people disinterested in politics take notice of the polity was the change in their lives. The youth were hopping from one job to another at will. Vajpayee had promised 1 crore jobs. In February 2003, he declared in the Lok Sabha he had created 70 lakh jobs already.

The middle class was going crazy buying houses, the rate of interest for the loans of which had, for the first time, dropped to a single-digit figure (8.35%). Real estate prices fell also because of Vajpayee’s announcement in 2001 that his government would build 3 lakh houses in the next four years. And vehicles were moving on broad and smooth highways at speeds never experienced before — although the then Prime Minister’s dream of the Golden Quadrilateral was yet to be realised.

A grateful nation turned nationalist with Indians asserting themselves in their limited capacities. In response to the American sanctions, people boycotted Coke and Pepsi, switching to the good ol’ fruit juice. In 2002, the Indian unit of Coca Cola sold off 49% of its stakes in its wholly owned bottling subsidiaries (also because it had failed to meet the deadline to move a percentage of the business to Indian hands that it had agreed to in 1997).

Vajpayee’s was a typical government for the middle classes. While he did nothing awful for the poor, the sudden ascension of the lower middle class increased the income and lifestyle disparities. So many incidents of crime — with the lower stratum of the economy invariably found to be the perpetrator — were reported from residential areas of cities that many were transformed into fortresses.

These were portents of 2004, which the government of the day ignored to its own peril with its “feel good” slogan under the “India Shining” campaign. The government’s food security programmes were not advertised. In 1999, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government had brought in the 81st Amendment of the Constitution, ensuring that the unfilled reserved job vacancies in a given year in the government sector do not affect the percentage of reservation for Dalits the next year. Rather carelessly, this reform was not advertised, which would have gone a long way in dispelling the notion that the BJP was a Brahmin-Baniya party.

Even an indifferent citizen of the country today has heard of MGNREGA. Before the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh government stepped in with policy dictated by 60 odd communist MPs, however, Vajpayee had made little effort to publicise his Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana that provisioned half of the allocation in the form of free food grains to the States, which was the largest food-for-work programme undertaken till then.

For all these failings, to many a middle class Indian, Vajpayee was still “my Prime Minister”. After the initial years of Jawaharlal Nehru, after Indira Gandhi in 1972 following the creation of Bangladesh, the Prime Minister of India had become “my Prime Minister” for a third time, thanks to Vajpayee.

Ironically, his fans let Vajpayee down, too. Continuing with their apathy to elections, 2004 once again saw a terribly low voter turnout, with much of the middle class taking a day off in the scorching summer and the poor having a field day exercising their franchise.

Unfortunately for both Rao and Vajpayee, the economy lags policy by some years. The market had not boomed under Rao; it did under the United Front regime, albeit thanks to Rao’s liberalisation. Similarly, the GDP growth during Vajpayee was nothing impressive to write home about. Manmohan Singh walked away with the laurels during UPA I. however, the small but significant section of the commentariat seen today advocating a free market for India was a generation born in the 1990s with the advent of Rao’s rule — that swore by economic freedom by the time Vajpayee became the Prime Minister for the second time (1998).