NEW DELHI: Statesman and pragmatist, orator and poet, a man of peace and conviction. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a towering nationalist who softened the often sharp edge of his party’s politics with sophisticated inclusiveness, earning him the sobriquet “ajaat shatru” or the man with no enemies.
The first prime minister from a non-Congress party to complete a full term in office, Vajpayee began shakily — his first stint as prime minister in 1996 lasted only 13 days when his unlikely coalition government failed to get support from other parties. The BJP-led coalition government came back to power in 1998, and this time Vajpayee stayed in office for 13 months before losing a no-confidence motion by one vote.
The National Democratic Alliance returned to power in October 1999 with Vajpayee as prime minister once again. This time he lasted the entire term, capping a glorious career that saw him go from student activist to journalist, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh pracharak, Member of Parliament, foreign minister, opposition leader and finally a much-loved leader of the nation.
Like many of his generation, Vajpayee _ who died today at age 93 _ came into politics as an 18-year old during the Independence movement in 1942 when the Quit India movement was going on.
A lifelong bachelor, Vajpayee was first elected to Lok Sabha in 1957 from Balrampur in Uttar Pradesh in India’s second general elections. His maiden speech in Parliament so impressed his peers and colleagues that the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru introduced Vajpayee to a visiting foreign dignitary thus: “This young man one day will become the country’s prime minister.”
He remained a member of Parliament for 47 years — elected 10 times to the Lok Sabha and twice to Rajya Sabha.
Vajpayee’s signature in politics was achieving pragmatic consensus, and in this process he earned the respect of his party, allies and opponents. Abroad, he projected a harmonious image of India and connected it to the world through his foreign policy outreach.
Fluent in English, his oratory was at its best in Hindi. With his well-timed wit, and carefully-chosen words delivered with trademark long pauses, Vajpayee immediately connected with all those who came in contact with him — the common man, politicians, bureaucrats, students and world leaders.
As foreign minister under the Janata Party government headed by Morarji Desai in 1977, Vajpayee was the first leader to deliver a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in Hindi.
He was awarded India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, in March 2015.
While his six years in office were defined by several crises _ including the hijacking of an Indian Airlines jetliner to Kandahar, Afghanistan in 1999, an attack on the Parliament building in 2001, communal riots in Gujarat in 2002 _ he also left a mark with peace initiatives and infrastructural projects. Chief among them is the Golden Quadrilateral Highway network, connecting India’s four major metropolises with 5,846 kilometers of roads.