NEW DELHI: Former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, remembered for his bold peace initiatives with Pakistan and defiant nuclear tests, died here on Thursday at a government-run hospital where he was admitted two months ago for kidney infection.

He was 93.

Reclusive and ailing after his Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) shock defeat in 2004, Vajpayee’s absence from active politics weighed heavy on those who missed him as the man who alone could rein in Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his socially divisive policies.

In his message on Vajpayee’s passing, Mr Modi said he regarded the late leader as his father.

Vajpayee was idolised in Pakistan as a sincere peacemaker and wooed by rivals at home as the right man in the wrong party.

“Suppose I am that — a nice man in the wrong party — what would you want me to do?”

Typical of how he ribbed his doting opponents, on this occasion, shortly before resigning from a 13-day stint as prime minister in May 1996. In 1998, he had another short innings, but which he packed with game-changing nuclear tests, and a landmark visit to Lahore by bus.

A glimpse of Vajpayee’s diplomatic preferences can be seen from the fact that he favoured “genuine non-alignment”, an implied criticism of the movement founded by Jawaharlal Nehru. His pro-West politics was derived from the staunchly anti-communist Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), of which he was a lifelong member.

His three visits to Pakistan did not include any of the tenures of the PPP.

In fact, his first official visit to Pakistan came in Feb 1978, when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was in jail under the Zia regime. Vajpayee met the military ruler and later pointedly refused to speak out against the death sentence passed on Bhutto, which Indira Gandhi had vociferously opposed. The favour won for prime minister Morarji Desai Pakistan’s highest civilian award from Zia.

Vajpayee’s 1999 visit to Lahore became so popular in Pakistan that his host and then prime minister Nawaz Sharif said he could win an election there.

Vajpayee had initially opposed Gen Pervez Musharraf’s coup, but he also became the first leader to greet him when Musharraf declared himself president. The 2001 Agra summit with the general also saw Vajpayee moving forward and rowing back on a peace deal, which many believe was on the cards.

By Dec 2001, bilateral relations soured irretrievably when militants attacked the Indian parliament and Delhi blamed Pakistan. Consequently, following a massive military build-up, it was under Vajpayee’s watch in April-May 2002 that the diplomatic enclave in Delhi was deserted with convoys of diplomatic families heading home over fears of a nuclear exchange with Pakistan.

Once again — the first time was during the 1999 Kargil war — international pressure came into play and war clouds dispersed. The Kargil war had seen Vajpayee winning the 1999 election, after he was voted out in 1998, but the margin was so thin that he didn’t see sour ties with Pakistan as an advantage in domestic politcs.

In this photo taken on Feb 20, 1999, then prime minister Nawaz Sharif receives then Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the Wagah border near Lahore.—AP
In this photo taken on Feb 20, 1999, then prime minister Nawaz Sharif receives then Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the Wagah border near Lahore.—AP

His last visit to Pakistan was occasioned by the Saarc summit in January 2004. However, it was the Musharraf-Vajpayee pact on the sidelines that became the more important event.

It envisioned better ties between the two and got a promise from Gen Musharraf to thwart any cross-border militancy. It was Vajpayee’s policy with Pakistan whose thread was picked up by his successor, Dr Manmohan Singh.

Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf Chairman Imran Khan offered his condolences over the death of the former Indian prime minister.

Imran Khan said that Vajpayee’s efforts for peace between Pakistan and India would always be remembered, adding that the late leader was a huge political figure in South Asia.

The PTI chief said that as prime minister, Vajpayee took the responsibility to enhance relations between Pakistan and India.

‘There is a void in the politics of South Asia after his death. There can be political differences but the desire of peace remains present across the border,” the PTI leader said. “We stand with India in this difficult time.”

In his memoirs, Mr Khan has lauded the Vajpayee-Sharif Lahore summit as the first time since the 1971 war that “two heads of governments had met formally and issued a declaration…as a result.”

Born on Dec 25, 1924, in Gwalior, Vajpayee was elected 10 times to the Lok Sabha from four different states (the first time in 1957 from Balrampur, Uttar Pradesh), and was twice a member of the Rajya Sabha. He got an early start in public life when he got involved in the Quit India Movement of 1942 and was arrested.

He was already a member of the RSS since 1939, and after finishing Masters in Political Science from Kanpur, began to work full-time for the RSS.

One of the founding members of the Jan Sangh in 1951, Vajpayee became its president in 1968 upon the death of Deendayal Upadhyaya. As his parliamentary career flourished, Vajpayee made a name for himself as an orator and for his poetic flourishes. His poetry, collated in his book Meri Ekyaavan Kavitayein (My 51 Poems), reflect it.

The Indian government has declared a seven-day mourning and the former prime minister, who was an admirer of Nehr,u will be cremated on the banks of the Yamuna, close to the first prime minister’s Shantivan shrine.

Published in Dawn, August 17th, 2018