Vajpayee, the peerless poet and politician, turns 88

Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, one of India's most respected and popular political leaders, who presented a moderate face to balance the strident social conservatism of right-wing politics, celebrates his 88th birthday today.

Vajpayee, who served as prime minister for three terms - one as short as 13 days - was a powerful orator and a sterling poet, who could conjure up lyrical verses in an instant.  His non-abrasive style of functioning endeared him to leaders across the political spectrum, and even those who criticised his politics conceded to his personal affability and endearing charm. Even his political foes acknowledge him one of India's most respected politicians.

 Vajpayee, the peerless poet and politician, turns 88

Atal Bihari Vajpayee has earned admiration as a poetic politician. Reuters

Numerous programs have lined up for the day to celebrate the charismatic leader's birthday.

Special ceremonies will be held at Vajpayee's birth place in Gwalior, in Madhya Pradesh.

A 'Maha Mrityunjaya Paath' has also been organised at Indore in which 108 priests will take part.

The Madhya Pradesh government has  issued orders to have portraits of the former Prime Minister displayed in all government offices right down to the panchayat level.

However, Opposition party leaders in the State claim that BJP leaders had "forgotten" Vajpayee and were suddenly waking up to honour him  with an eye on the upcoming Assembly elections.

Vajpayee has not been in great health for sometime now and did not contest the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. He is known to suffer from dementia, or gradual deterioration of memory and mental functions.  He is also known to be a long-term diabetic.

Vajpayee's 13-day stint as prime minister came about  in 1996, when the BJP was invited to form a government after it emerged as the largest single party, but couldn't rustle up a majority in parliament.

After two successive unwieldy third front coalition governments fell between 1996 and 1998, the BJP again emerged as the largest single party in 1998. This time, though it managed to cobble together the National Democratic Alliance, another disparate grouping of regional parties.

Within two months of the NDA government being in office, in May 1998, India tested a nuclear device, inviting sanctions and recriminations from all over the world. Relations with China deteriorated when Vajpayee, in a letter to US President Bill Clinton, cited the threat from China as the reason for the nuclear test. (Remarkably, Vajpayee later oversaw a dramatic improvement in relations with China.)

The NDA government remained in power for 13 months, until it was brought down when the AIADMK, one of the most obstreperous alliance partners, voted against it after striking a deal with the Opposition Congress.

In the elections that followed, the NDA was returned to power, this time with a better grip on parliament, and served the full term from 1999 to May 2004, when it was voted out.

First as foreign minister in the Janata Party government in 1977 and then as prime minister in the late 1990s, Vajpayee oversaw several foreign policy successes for India. In line with the dictum that only a right-wing leader can make peace with neighbours (and not be criticised as being weak), Vajpayee initiated peace initiatives with both China and Pakistan. He travelled by bus to Lahore and established friendly relations, but the peace proved short-lived, and the Kargil war broke out.

Despite having to balance the swadeshi wing in his party, Vajpayee oversaw an ambitious economic reform program and undertook infrastructure projects, including the Golden Quadrilateral project to establish a network of highways, which laid the foundation for high economic growth. It was under his watch that India dared to dream of 8 percent GDP growth, and the phrase India Shining was coined. But ironically, its neglect of welfare policies, which served as good economics, was perceived as bad politics, and his government lost power in 2004.

On his birthday today, BJP leaders visited Vajpayee's residence with bouquets and wished him well and a long life ahead.

Among those who wished Vajpayee was DMK chief M Karunanidhi, who is otherwise a bitter critic of BJP politics. In a message, Karunanidhi described Vajpayee as an incomparable national leader of the country who carried the nation through the years of crisis. "I wish you good health and (that you) continue to serve society for the years to come," the DMK patriarch said.

With inputs from Agencies

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Updated Date: Dec 25, 2011 15:39:48 IST