Former Prime Minister of India Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had been undergoing treatment for kidney-related ailments, died at 5.05 pm on Thursday, a statement by AIIMS hospital in New Delhi said. He was 93.
Vajpayee was admitted to the AIIMS on June 11 with infections related to kidney and urinary tracts. His health deteriorated during the past 36 hours and he was put on life support systems.
While expressing his condolence, President Ram Nath Kovind said Vajpayee’s leadership, foresight, maturity and eloquence put him in a league of his own. A reasoned critique as Opposition leader and a seeker of consensus as Prime Minister, Vajpayee was a democrat to the core.
Describing him as the Gentle Giant, the president said he will be missed by one and all.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Vajpayee lived for the nation and served it assiduously for decades. His leadership helped in laying the foundation for a strong, prosperous and inclusive India in the 21st century. His futuristic policies touched the lives of every Indian.
As a party leader, Vajpayee built the BJP brick by brick. He travelled across India to spread the party’s message. This led to the BJP becoming a strong force in India’s national polity and in several states, Modi added.
Veteran BJP leader LK Advani said Vajpayee was to him more than a senior colleague. He was his closest friend for over 65 years.
Federal Home Minister Rajnath Singh said Vaypayee cherished the ideal of a developed and powerful India in which all persons lived together in unity, peace and harmony. Singh said he drew inspiration from his life and contribution.
Over the past few months, BJP’s rival parties were making comparison between Vaypayee and present Prime Minister Narendra Modi to score some political brownie points.
Their views boiled down to this: Vaypayee was the soft and tolerant face of BJP whereas Modi represents the hard and ‘militant’ face of the party. In other words, they used Vajpayee as a weapon to attack Modi.
But Vajpayee was a secular Hindu leader firmly rooted in India’s ancient traditions and values. At 16, he was an active member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS. Much later, he defended it against scathing attacks by rival parties led by Congress, leftists and others who saw RSS and BJP as two sides of the same coin.
When he was jailed during Emergency imposed by the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government, he refused to be released on medical grounds after undergoing surgery.
The rulers can break you physically but not make you bend, he said.
When the Janata government collapsed in the late 1970s, it was Vajpayee who restructured the Bharatiya Jana Sangh into BJP in 1980. He brought BJP into the political mainstream to challenge the then formidable Congress Party. He was also the first non-Congress prime minister to serve a full five-year term in office from March 1998 to May 2004.
Vajpayee’s poetic skills and aesthetic sensibility must have mellowed him as a politician to accept the views of his opponents with a disarming smile.
Unlike Vajpayee, Modi is no poet. Political circumstances like that in Kashmir and Pakistan have drastically changed now to warrant a tougher approach to deal with situations. Had Vajpayee been the prime minister during the past four years, he would have responded in a different way.
Vajpayee, who took a historic peace mission on a bus to Pakistan in 1999 a year after announcing India’s underground nuclear test at Pokhran, shed his conciliatory approach when, soon after that ride, Pakistani troops disguised as militants infiltrated Kashmir and occupied the mountainous Kargil triggering a three-month war.
For Vajpayee, the Kargil occupation after his groundbreaking bus ride to Lahore came like a stab in the back. Indian army cleared the Kargil sector of Pakistani army by launching Operation Vijay.
Both Vajpayee and Modi believed in the common man’s potential to reach any heights. Before his rise, Modi was son of a tea-seller at a nondescript railway station in his home state Gujarat. Vaypayee was son of a school teacher who hailed from a dusty village.
Poet at heart, politician by accident
As leader, Vajpayee had a great ability in achieving consensus and winning respect from his political allies and opponents. But he never acted like a leader and everyone felt he was one of them.
As an orator, he had a wonderful connect with people who used to walk miles to hear him at a time when there were no TVs in Indian homes. Lawmakers cutting across party lines used to eagerly flock to Parliament whenever he made important speeches.
As a visionary, Vajpayee, along with then transport minister
General Khanduri announced Golden Quadrilateral, the largest highway project in 2001, and Pradhan Mantri Gramin Sadak Yojana linking five lakh villages to cities.
As an individual, he was humane, gentle, humorous, frank and fearless. He was a poet at heart and a politician by accident. He remained a bachelor but adopted a daughter named Namita Bhattacharya.
Vajpayee was awarded Bharat Ratna, the nation’s highest civilian award, for his services to the nation.