“The right man in the wrong party”—that was how Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who died here yesterday after battling long illnesses, was often described by his political rivals and the Indian media.
And there are good reasons for this. His views on some issues were often at variance with most of the top leaders in his Bharatiya Janata Party, including his closes friend Lal Krishna Advani with whom he often used to watch movies in their formative years.
For instance, Vajpayee never agreed with the RSS that India's history should be re-written to rid of alleged Leftist bias. Secondly, he was among the few BJP leaders who had unequivocally condemned the demolition of the Babri mosque on December 6, 1992 and described it as the saddest day of his life. He at times tried to appeal to Muslims and other minority groups and he was a reassuring figure for India's mainly secular establishment.
Vajpayee was not merely a politician but a statesman who strode the Indian political scene like a colossus for close to five decades.
One of India's most charismatic leaders whose oratory was legendary, Vajpayee would be remembered for making bold initiatives reaching far beyond his BJP's nationalist political agenda. One of the key components of his oratory was the ready wit and ability to laugh at himself.
Once asked about his bachelor status, Vajpayee jocularly told a group of children that he hadn't got married because no woman was willing to marry him. His love for poetry, music and cinema added to his image as a charming and multi-dimensional personality.
Vajpayee, who was India's longest-serving PMoutside of the once-dominant Congress party, was often described as the moderate face of the BJP and had a wider appeal than his more hawkish colleagues.
Undeterred by party hawks who accused him of embarking on a charm offensive to Pakistan in 1999, Vajpayee as PM undertook a bus ride to Lahore from Delhi, flagging off the first passenger service between India to Pakistan in February 1999.
On India's eastern front, he unleashed another bus diplomacy by jointly launching with Sheikh Hasina the Dhaka-Kolkata bus service, the first between India and Bangladesh, in June 1999.
Vajpayee never hesitated to describe Indira Gandhi as Goddess Durga for her role in Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. Just four years down the line, during the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi in 1975, he was jailed as were most prominent Opposition leaders.
To secure the backing of more secular groups for his coalition, Vajpayee had to put on the back burner some of the basic ideological tenets of BJP like uniform civil code, Ram temple construction in Ayodhya and special constitutional status for Jammu and Kashmir.
It was a reflection of his politics and statesmanship that politicians across the spectrum rushed to Delhi to pay their respects to the veteran. When he was brought to AIIMS hospital in June, one of the first to check on him had been Rahul Gandhi of the Congress.