Ex-PM of India and political titan Vajpayee dies at 93

Students at a makeshift memorial for India’s former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Mumbai yesterday. Analysts credited Mr Vajpayee with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s rise as a national force. Until then, national politics had been dominate
Students at a makeshift memorial for India’s former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Mumbai yesterday. Analysts credited Mr Vajpayee with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s rise as a national force. Until then, national politics had been dominated by the Congress party of the Gandhis. PHOTO: REUTERS

Three-time PM one of the founders of ruling BJP; Modi calls his death the end of an era

India is mourning the death of former prime minister and highly respected politician Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who died yesterday after a long illness. He was 93.

The three-time prime minister was one of the founders of the country's ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the death of Mr Vajpayee - popularly referred to as Atalji - as the "end of an era".

"India grieves the demise of our beloved Atalji. His passing away marks the end of an era. He lived for the nation and served it assiduously for decades. My thoughts are with his family, BJP karyakartas (workers) and millions of admirers in this hour of sadness," he said in a condolence message.

Mr Vajpayee had three stints as prime minister: A short spell of 13 days in 1996, 13 months from 1998 to 1999, and a full five-year term from 1999 to 2004.

Never married, the politician was a key figure in the rise of the BJP. A charismatic leader, gentleman politician and brilliant orator, he made elegant speeches laced with poetry.

He was a member of the Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swamyamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the now-defunct right-wing party Bharatiya Jan Sangh.

In spite of his Hindu nationalist roots, he was seen as the moderate face of the BJP and was well-respected in India, including in Muslim-majority Kashmir, where he had tried his best to bring about peace.

He was born on Dec 25, 1924, to Mr Krishna Bihari Vajpayee, a poet and schoolmaster, and his wife, in the city of Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh.

He did not finish law school and entered politics in the 1950s, a long career that saw him retire only in 2009 because of his health.

A defining moment of his stint as prime minister was in 1998, when India conducted a series of underground nuclear tests, making it the newest nuclear power. But it invited sanctions from the United States and the European Union.

He also did his utmost to promote peace between India and Pakistan, launching the Lahore bus service in 1999 and taking the bus from Delhi to Lahore to hold talks with then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Even as he tried to make peace, India went to war with Pakistan after Pakistani soldiers were found to have infiltrated Kargil in the Kashmir Valley in 1999. India was able to push back Pakistani troops.

Critics called the 2002 Gujarat communal riots in which more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed the biggest blot of his tenure. Current PM Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat at the time.

In 2004, Mr Vajpayee attempted a comeback to power on the back of the so-called "India Shining" campaign, but was defeated by the Congress party.

The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) noted that as prime minister, he remained a "strong proponent of industrial and economic development through market reforms".

"The second generation of economic reforms introduced under his visionary leadership contributed greatly to a facilitative investment climate, which in turn promoted India's rapid growth," said CII president Rakesh Bharti Mittal.

Mr Vajpayee made an official visit to Singapore in 2002, at the invitation of then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. He delivered the 21st Singapore Lecture, titled "India's Perspectives on Asean and the Asia-Pacific Region".

Analysts credited Mr Vajpayee with the BJP's rise as a national force. Until then, national politics had been dominated by the Congress party of the Gandhis.

"He was the first prime minister from a non-Congress background. His capacity to go beyond the political stripes he belonged to and reach out was his greatest strength," said Dr Sandeep Shastri, a Bengaluru-based political analyst.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2018, with the headline 'Ex-PM of India and political titan Vajpayee dies at 93'. Print Edition | Subscribe