India awards top civilian honour to former PM Vajpayee

Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee greets the audience before delivering a lecture at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee greets the audience before delivering a lecture at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

NEW DELHI (AFP) - India on Wednesday conferred its highest civilian honour on former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who is credited with bringing about a thaw in relations with Pakistan.

The charismatic former leader from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who turns 90 on Thursday and is in ill health, was premier first in 1996 and again from 1998 to 2004.

Known for his consensual approach, his nearly five decades of parliamentary experience earned him respect across the political spectrum, including from the rival Congress party.

Current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, also of the BJP, said he was "delighted" by the decision to award Vajpayee the Bharat Ratna.

"A guide, inspiration & giant among giants. His contribution to India is invaluable," Modi tweeted.

Pakistan and India have fought three wars and came close to a fourth in 2002 before Vajpayee extended the hand of friendship to Islamabad.

The Bharat Ratna is also being conferred on the late Indian educationist Madan Mohan Malviya, who established India's renowned Banaras Hindu University and also took part in the country's independence movement.

Just 43 people have been honoured with the title since its inception, including scientist C.V. Raman and star cricketer Sachin Tendulkar.