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Poet Prime Minister’s last rites at 4 pm today at Delhi’s Smriti Sthal

Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s death led to tributes from across the political spectrum, with everyone from Prime Minister Modi to Congress president Gandhi expressing their sadness.

india Updated: Aug 17, 2018 08:22 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Atal Bihari Vajpayee,BJP,Vajpayee
Atal Bihari Vajpayee photographed in his office on August 10, 1987.(HT archives)

The last rites of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee will take place at 4 pm on Friday at Rashtriya Smriti Sthal in New Delhi, BJP chief Amit Shah said.

The body of the BJP veteran has been kept at his official residence -- 6 A Krishna Menon Marg. Shah said people can pay homage to the departed leader at his residence from 7.30am to 8.30am on Friday.

The body would then be taken to the BJP headquarters at Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg at around 9am, he told reporters outside the late leader’s residence.

India’s former prime minister and one of the country’s most-loved and respected leaders, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, died on Thursday evening, uniting an otherwise deeply divided political class in grief.

Vajpayee, three-time PM, 12-time parliamentarian, former president of both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its earlier avatar, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, and a popular mass leader who brought both respectability and power to the BJP for the first time, passed away at the All India Institute for Medical Sciences (AIIMS) at the age of 93.

“It is with profound grief that we inform about the sad demise of former Prime Minister of India Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee at 5.05 pm,” Aarti Vij, who heads the media and protocol division of AIIMS, said in a statement.

“Unfortunately, his condition deteriorated over the last 36 hours and he was put on life support systems. Despite the best of efforts, we have lost him today. We join the nation in deeply mourning this great loss,” Vij added.

A galaxy of political dignitaries including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP president Amit Shah, LK Advani, an associate of Vajpayee’s for seven decades, Congress president Rahul Gandhi and leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad, visited AIIMS before the announcement was made.

Vajpayee’s overall health had deteriorated after he suffered a stroke in 2009. He was admitted to AIIMS on June 11 with infection of the kidney and urinary tracts, and chest congestion. On Wednesday, AIIMS said his condition had worsened over the past 24 hours.

Watch: Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the poet: ‘Kashmir pe bharat ka kad nahi jhukega’

Vajpayee’s death led to tributes from across the political spectrum, with everyone from Prime Minister Modi to Congress president Gandhi expressing their sadness.

“I am speechless...I feel a deep void...He lived for the nation and served it assiduously for decades. My thoughts are with his family, BJP Karyakartas and millions of admirers in this hour of sadness,” Modi said in a Twitter post. “it was Vajpayee’s exemplary leadership that set the foundations for a strong, prosperous and inclusive India in the 21st century. His futuristic policies across various sectors touched the lives of each and every citizen of India.”

Modi said Vajpayee’s death was a “personal and irreplaceable loss” for him.

“I have countless fond memories with him. He was an inspiration to karyakartas (functionaries) like me,”?he said. “I will particularly remember his sharp intellect and outstanding wit.”

Gandhi said in a Twitter post, “Today India lost a great son. Former PM, Atal Bihari Vajpayee ji, was loved and respected by millions. My condolences to his family & all his admirers. We will miss him.”

“I am at a loss of words to express my deep grief and sadness today as we all mourn the passing away of one of India’s tallest statesmen, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. To me, Atalji was more than a senior colleague -- in fact, he was my closest friend for over 65 years,” Advani was quoted as saying by news agency ANI.

Vajpayee’s singular contribution to Indian politics was making a party like the Jana Sangh and then the BJP, which had misgivings about India’s liberal and secular constitutional project, more mainstream, while forcing the existing political mainstream, represented by those who had apprehensions about the BJP , to give space and respect to his party through his sheer force of personality and the electoral successes it scored. It was this balancing act that made Vajpayee a unique figure in the annals of Indian political history, but also often led to questions about his own political identity.

Born in Gwalior in 1924, Vajpayee was politically socialised in the pre-Independence era and joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). He eventually joined the Jana Sangh, when RSS seconded a set of pracharaks and swayamsevaks to the then-new party in 1951. Vajpayee worked as a close aide to the Jana Sangh founder, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, who died early, aged 52.

The Jana Sangh was then led by Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, who provided it both the larger ideological orientation as well as led the organisational effort of the party. But the star of the party’s rather tiny parliamentary wing was Vajpayee, who first entered the Lok Sabha in 1957 and quickly made a name for himself as a fiery debater, earning the praise of then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Vajpayee’s transition to the organisational leadership position took place after Upadhyaya’s assassination; he became the Jana Sangh president in 1968. It was a time of great tumult in Indian politics. The Congress had lost power across north Indian states. Socialists and the Jana Sangh had come together to form the government in many of these states, but the coalitions did not last.

Read: ‘The uncompromising patriot’: Shakti Sinha on working closely with Atal Bihari Vajpayee

Indira Gandhi returned to power with a bigger majority in 1971; the subsequent Bangladesh war made her appear even more invincible, although the jury is still out on whether Vajpayee called her ‘Durga’ in recognition of the win, as urban legend has it.

Within a few years, Indira Gandhi declared Emergency rule. Vajpayee, along with the rest of the Opposition leaders, was arrested. The Emergency ironically energised the Opposition. Congress dissidents, socialists,and the Jana Sangh eventually merged to form the Janata Party and dislodged the Congress in 1977. Twenty years after becoming an MP, Vajpayee now became India’s external affairs minister in the Morarji Desai cabinet, and displayed a surprising flair for diplomacy.

But despite being a member of the first non-Congress cabinet, he retained respect for Nehru. In a parliamentary debate two decades later, Vajpayee was to recall that he once saw Nehru’s portrait removed from the ministry -- and immediately got it put back on.

The coalition collapsed soon after. The other components of the Janata Party insisted that the former Jana Sangh members either remain with the party or with the RSS, a section chose to walk away. Vajpayee was among those, in a clear illustration of his abiding commitment to the Sangh. He formed the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1980, with ‘Gandhian socialism’ as one of the precepts, which was seen as a departure from the orientation of the Jana Sangh.

Vajpayee’s biggest electoral setback came in 1984. Soon after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, a sympathy wave swept through India. In a last-minute surprise nomination, Congress leader and member of the Gwalior royal dynasty, Madhavrao Scindia ,filed his nomination papers against Vajpayee. Vajpayee’s loss was symbolic of the larger setback for the new party, which only had two MPs in the house.

But this was temporary.

The BJP slowly shifted track and under Advani, who took over the party, became closely associated with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. The party did well in the 1989 elections and became a supporting pillar of the VP Singh-led National Front government. This eventually led to a fault-line surfacing between supporters of Mandal -- the report of a commission headed by BP Mandal, who backed reservations for other backward classes in government jobs and educational institutions -- and Mandir, those who invested their passion in the Ram temple movement. This was Advani’s moment as he led a Yatra (road journey) for the cause.

Vajpayee was relevant, but not the central decision-maker in the party at this stage. The demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 made him deeply uncomfortable.

But while the BJP under Advani was becoming organisationally robust, its most popular and acceptable face remained Vajpayee. He was projected as the party’s PM face in the 1996 elections. The rub was this -- Vajpayee had come so close to power because BJP had grown. The BJP had grown because of aggressive Hindu cultural and nationalist politics, from which Vajpayee had stayed away from to some extent. And it was this distance that then enabled Vajpayee to become more acceptable to a wide range of non-core voters of the party.

Thus began the final stage of Vajpayee’s political career.

The BJP emerged as the single-largest party. Vajpayee was sworn in as PM, but the party’s “communalism,” which political rivals accused it of, prevented it from getting the numbers . He resigned in 13 days.

“The BJP isn’t a party that has cropped up like a mushroom, it has worked for 40 years among the masses to make its place,” Vajpayee said during the debate, adding that even in the opposition, the party will continue to play critical role in nation-building.

But in 1998, after mid-term polls, Vajpayee was back -- and this time, he was able to prove his majority. Vajpayee’s second term in office was marked by three significant events -- the nuclear tests of May 1998, the Lahore visit in early 1999, and the Kargil war in the summer of 1999. This helped project him as a leader committed to national security, though there were a range of critics on all three issues. “Kargil has once again shown that whenever our patriotism is aroused, all of us stand as one with full confidence and determination, as a fist clenched in conviction. We face our challenges unitedly. Our adversaries should beware of this,” he said during the Independence Day address in 1999 after the war.

In April 1999, his government lost a no-confidence vote in the Lok Sabha by a single vote after the withdrawal from the coalition of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, whose leader J Jayalaithaa was upset because the government had refused to dismiss the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government in Tamil Nadu. This Vajpayee government lasted 13 months.

After the 1999 elections, Vajpayee mobilised support from a range of parties and the National Democratic Alliance stayed together until the end of its term.

In his third term, Vajpayee came to be identified with ambitious infrastructure projects, particularly the Golden Quadrilateral highway initiative. It was also a reformist government which had an ambitious disinvestment agenda. Vajpayee also remained personally invested in foreign policy. He began a process of rapprochement with Pakistan with the Agra summit in 2001 that collapsed; had to face a terrorist attack on Parliament; mobilised forces at the border and came close to a war. Eventually, Pakistan was forced to accept the existence of terrorism and categorically commit to stop supporting it. But he also dealt with bigger powers, laying the foundations of a deep strategic partnership with the US and striking a deal with China wherein Beijing accepted Sikkim as a part of India while India reiterated that Tibet was a part of China.

The PM had one difficult moment -- in 2002, when the Gujarat riots took place. He encouraged the then chief minister Narendra Modi to follow his ‘rajdharma’, and was inclined to remove him, but did not do so based on the mood of the party and his senior colleague Advani.

But Vajpayee’s political gamble of calling elections early backfired in 2004. The ‘India Shining’ plank did not resonate with voters. The NDA had shrunk, with key partners switching sides. And Congress eventually ended up becoming the single-largest party -- and forming a United Progressive Alliance government with the support of the communists. The Vajpayee era ended with the defeat in 2004. He stayed on as a parliamentarian, but it was never the same. Age and health had caught up with the man known for his ability to also enjoy a good time. A series of medical setbacks led to his complete withdrawal from politics.

Vajpayee has died at a time when the party he helped found is in its most dominant position ever. What he thought of the current trajectory of the BJP will never be known -- but the fact that the party owes him an enormous debt is acknowledged by all. Vajpayee’s contribution will go beyond what he did for his party alone. He ranks as one of India’s finest prime ministers.

As PM Modi put it, “India grieves the demise of our beloved Atal ji. His passing away marks the end of an era.”

First Published: Aug 17, 2018 00:12 IST