Former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee gestures at the presidential palace in New Delhi on August 15, 1998, after addressing the nation on India's 50th anniversary of independence. In his speech he said he was ready for talks with Pakistan ''on any issue, at any time, at any level and anywhere in the world.'' Photo: AFP
Late Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, at the presidential palace in New Delhi on August 15, 1998. He said in a speech that he was ready for talks with Pakistan 'on any issue, at any time, at any level and anywhere in the world.' Photo: AFP

Former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the first prime minister from the Bhartiya Janata Party, passed away at New Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) on Wednesday. He was 93.

“I have no words, I am filled with emotions right now… His passing away marks the end of an era. He lived for the nation and served it assiduously for decades,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a series of tweets following the reports of his death. Vajpayee is survived by his adopted daughter Namita.

Vajpayee was admitted to AIIMS on June 11 with a kidney tract infection and chest congestion. His condition became critical on Tuesday and he was eventually put on life support. Scores of politicians, including Prime Minister Modi and cabinet members of the ruling government, had rushed to his side as news spread of his declining health.

A masterful orator and a famed poet, Vajpayee had been a member of India’s Parliament since 1957 and retired from active politics in 2005. His earliest brush with politics was in 1942, when he participated in the Quit India Movement against the British colonial rule. He was arrested – along with his elder brother – and held for 23 days. He was released only after submitting a written undertaking to not participate in the struggle against the British.

India’s first prime minister, Indian National Congress’ Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was known to be very fond of Vajpayee, even though they were opposed politically. Full of praise for Vajpayee, Nehru sent him on various international delegations and even predicted that Vajpayee would become prime minister “one day.”

Vajpayee was also a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing, Hindu nationalist organization. In 1951, he joined the newly-formed Bharatiya Jana Sangh — the political arm of the RSS — and eventually emerged as the face of the party. In 1977, the Jana Sangh merged with several parties, as the Janata Party, in opposition to the Indian National Congress. The Janata Party won the general election that year with a sweeping majority. Vajpayee was instated as the foreign minister and established good relationships with China and Pakistan.

But the Janata Party government crumbled in 1979 and performed miserably in the election that followed. Following the loss, Vajpayee converted the Jana Sangh into the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1980. He was named the party’s first president.

The BJP registered its first parliamentary election win in May 1996, emerging as the single largest party in a hung assembly. Vajpayee was invited to form the government and given two weeks to prove majority, a deadline he failed to meet. After serving 13 days as India’s prime minister, Vajpayee resigned with a stirring, hour-long speech in Parliament.

Two governments followed Vajpayee’s resignation, both of which failed to last a full term. In 1998, the BJP again emerged as the leading party after fresh elections. It merged with several other parties to form the National Democratic Alliance coalition government, with Vajpayee as prime minister.

Several key developments took place under Vajpayee’s rule between 1998-99, including five underground nuclear tests conducted in Rajasthan state’s Pokhran desert and the signing of the historic Lahore Declaration with Pakistan aimed at a peaceful resolution of the Kashmir dispute. 

His run as prime minister lasted only 13 months, however, after the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party, led by former Tamil Nadu state chief minister Jayalalithaa, withdrew its support to the National Democratic Alliance government. Vajpayee lost the ensuing vote of confidence by just one vote.

Between May and July 1999, however, India went to war with Pakistan following reports that Pakistani militants and soldiers had infiltrated into the Kashmir Valley and captured border posts. India eventually emerged victorious in the Kargil War.

Vajpayee, leading a minority government at the time, gained tremendous popularity for keeping a strong stance during the war. It also helped him get his National Democratic Alliance coalition a majority in the 1999 general election. This was Vajpayee’s final run as prime minister and saw several foreign policy, economic and taxation reforms. His government also launched the iconic ‘Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan’ program to provide elementary education to all children aged 6-14 years.

However, the term was also marred by rising incidents of communal violence, including the 2002 Gujarat riots that led to the death of more than 1,000 people, a majority of whom were Muslims. Vajpayee was accused of taking no steps to stop the violence. Later, in a visit to the riot-hit state, he said he was “ashamed” at the violence.

When his term came to an end in 2004, Vajpayee became the first non-Congress leader to complete a full five-year term as India’s Prime Minister. He ran for prime minister in 2004 as well, but lost to the Sonia Gandhi-led Indian National Congress.

In 2014, Vajpayee was conferred the Bharat Ratna — India’s highest civilian honor — by Pranab Mukherjee, India’s president at the time.

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