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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Former Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee dies at age 93

Vajpayee was considered the moderate face of Hindu nationalism

Former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee died in New delhi on August 16, 2018 at the age of 93. Reuters
Former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee died in New delhi on August 16, 2018 at the age of 93. Reuters

Former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a poet turned politician who ordered nuclear tests in 1999 and travelled to Pakistan as a peace gesture, died in hospital on Thursday at the age of 93.

Vajpayee was one of the most popular leaders of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), now led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But while Mr Modi is considered by critics to be a polarising figure, Vajpayee was the moderate face of Hindu nationalism.

"It was Atal Ji's exemplary leadership that set the foundations for a strong, prosperous and inclusive India in the 21st century," Mr Modi said in a tweet, using a Hindi-language honorific.

"Atal Ji's passing away is a personal and irreplaceable loss for me."

Mr Modi led a procession of Indian leaders to visit Vajpayee's bedside after he was put on life support at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences hospital in Delhi on Thursday.

The the three-time premier battled poor health for years but his condition deteriorated sharply in recent days.

He was admitted more than two months ago with a kidney infection and chest ailment but illness had kept him out of the public eye for years.

Vajpayee, a former journalist and poet turned politician, is credited with helping lay the foundations for the meteoric rise of the BJP.

He was one of the few opposition legislators in parliament when India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, held office.

His more than five-decade-long career peaked in the 1990s, when his masterful oratory attracted tens of thousands of people to his rallies across the country.

He also became the first non-Congress leader since India's independence in 1947 to complete an entire term in office, as head of a BJP-led ruling alliance between March 1998 and May 2004.

Many top ministers in the current government - including Mr Modi - were protégées of Vajpayee and his deputy, Lal Krishna Advani, in past administrations.

Vajpayee embarked on a historic bus ride to arch-rival Pakistan in 1999 and held talks with then-premier Nawaz Sharif in the city of Lahore.

But his peacemaker image was shattered when Pakistan-backed forces pressed over the disputed Kashmir border and he later helped ramp up tensions in South Asia by testing nuclear weapons in 1998.

Vajpayee withdrew from the public eye after a BJP-led alliance suffered a shock defeat in 2004.

He was rarely seen or heard in public after that. It was widely reported that he suffered a stroke in 2009 which largely confined him to his New Delhi residence.

He continues to enjoy devotion in many parts of the country, especially in key bellwether Hindi-heartland states in north and central India.

Vajpayee's often conciliatory tone, and poetic jibes directed at opponents, attracted popularity on both sides of the political divide.