New Delhi: Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose politics of moderation in a hard line party propelled the BJP to power for the first time in the 1990s, died on Thursday after long illness. The 93-year-old leader, who had faded from public life for more than a decade following health complications and was admitted to AIIMS with a urinary tract infection on June 11, breathed his last at 5.05 p.m., the hospital said in a statement. Vajpayee, who joined the RSS in 1947, rose through ranks to become a stalwart of the BJP and was the first non-Congress prime minister to complete a full term in office.
Seen as a moderate face of BJP, Vajpayee first became prime minister in 1996, leading a shaky coalition whose members were suspicious of the BJP’s right-wing politics. It lasted for 13 days and collapsed after losing a vote of no-confidence. His second stint as prime minister was in 1998 when the National Democratic Alliance again came to power but that lasted for just 13 months.
Finally, the NDA, with Vajpayee as PM, returned to power in 1999 and was voted out in 2004. A 10-time MP of the Lok Sabha, Vajpayee announced his retirement from politics in 2005. He was also a member of the Rajya Sabha twice. ‘‘It was due to the perseverance and struggles of Atal Ji that the BJP was built brick by brick,” PM Modi said in a tweet.
During his second term as prime minister, India conducted nuclear tests in a strategic masterstroke to blunt Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions, while at the same time announcing a moratorium on future testing. He followed this up with peace overtures to Pakistan, riding on the first direct bus from India to Pakistan in February 1999.
Undeterred by party hawks, Vajpayee arrived in Lahore on the bus, accompanied among others by legendary actor Dev Anand. Vajpayee met with then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in what was hailed as the dawn of a new era in India-Pakistan relations. However, then army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf did not turn up to greet him at the Wagah border. It soon became clear why.
Only months later, in June 1999, Pakistan began hostilities in Kargil that took the two countries to the brink of a full-scale war. Vajpayee felt betrayed and never hid his bitterness whenever Kargil was mentioned. He tried again to reach out to Pakistan — which people close to him say was the mission of his life — by holding a historic summit in Agra with Musharraf in 2001, who by then had become the president. But the summit too failed spectacularly.
Another historic event that he expressed anguish about was the post-Godhra communal riots in Gujarat in 2002 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the chief minister. Unwilling to hide his feelings over the riots, Prime Minister Vajpayee said the government must follow “raj dharma”. In his autobiography, former President Pranab Mukherjee wrote that the Gujarat riots were “possibly the biggest blot” on Vajpayee’s government that could have cost the Bharatiya Janata Party the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.