The “gentle giant of Indian politics”, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who was behind bringing right-wing politics to the national stage, breathed his last on Thursday at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences after a prolonged illness.
The 93-year-old BJP leader and former Prime Minister was suffering from multiple ailments and was admitted to AIIMS on June 11. He was put on a life support system by doctors after his condition became critical over the past 24 hours.
“It is with profound grief that we inform about the sad demise of former Prime Minister of India Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee at 5.05 pm,” AIIMS said in a statement. Vajpayee, a bachelor, is survived by his adopted daughter Namita Kaul Bhattacharya.
Reports indicated that in order to honour the immense contribution of Atal Behari Vajpayee to Indian politics and nation-building, the Centre has decided to construct a separate samadhi-cum-memorial dedicated to the first BJP Prime Minister on the banks of the Yamuna near Rajghat in New Delhi. The last rites of Atal Behari Vajpayee will take place at Rashtriya Smriti Sthal on Friday at 4 pm. Vajpayee’s body was taken to his official residence 6A Krishna Menon Marg at 7 pm on Thursday and from around 9 pm people were allowed to pay their homage. It will be taken to the BJP headquarters at Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg on Friday morning. The Prime Minister was among the first to reach Vajpayee’s residence at around 9.20 pm on Thursday.
As the body of the BJP’s tallest leader lay wrapped in the tricolour at his residence, leaders arrived to pay homage. Among the prominent leaders and dignitaries to go to his residence Thursday night were former President Pranab Mukherjee and former vice-president Hamid Ansari, as well as President Ram Nath Kovind, vice-president M. Venkaiah Naidu and BJP president Amit Shah. The last journey of the poet politician, who once wrote “Maut ki umra kya hai? Do pal bhi nahi, zindagi silsila, aaj kal ki nahi” (What is the age of death? Not even two moments. Life is a journey, not a day-long affair. I have lived life to the fullest, I will die happily. I will return, why should I fear the end?), will begin from the party headquarters at 1 pm on Friday afternoon.
The Central government has announced seven days’ state mourning throughout the country. During this period, the national flag will be flown at half-mast throughout India as well as at Indian missions overseas. The government also announced a half-day holiday on the funeral day in all Central government offices across India. The Delhi government also announced a holiday on Friday as a mark of respect to the former Prime Minister. In Delhi, all schools, offices and Delhi government institions will remain closed.
Security all along the route of Vajpayee’s final journey has been tightened and barricades were being put up all along the way. The carriage carrying one of India’s most popular and iconic leaders will move through Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg, Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg and from there move towards Smriti Sthal. Over 15,000 security personnel have been deployed as over one lakh people are expected at the funeral.
As news of Vajpayee’s deteriorating condition spread, leaders from across India and several chief ministers rushed to Delhi. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, and Bihar CM Nitish Kumar, Chhattisga-rh’s Raman Singh, Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje reached in the morning Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik will arrive late on Thursday night. Prime Minister Narendra Modi went to AIIMS twice in the last 24 hours to enquire about Vajpayee’s health. As the news of his death was declared by doctors, the Prime Minister tweeted: “I am lost for words; a tide of emotions is swirling within me; his death is the end of an era.” President Ram Nath Kovind tweeted: “Atalji, the gentle giant, will be missed by one and all.”
Congress president Rahul Gandhi, at loggerheads with the BJP, was among the first leaders to reach AIIMS. He tweeted: “Today India lost a great son. Former PM Atal Behari Vajpayeeji was loved and respected by millions. My condolences to his family and all his admirers. We will miss him.” The representatives of the United States, Russia, Japan and Pakistan expressed their condolences while some leaders like Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina and Nepal PM K.P. Sharma Oli also paid their tribute.
Vajpayee, who was accorded the Bharat Ratna in 2015, was loved even by his political rivals. This became evident when the BJP-RSS’ bitter critic Mani Shankar Aiyar described him as one of the “best foreign ministers” India had ever had. West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, who had seved in Vajpayee’s Cabinet as railway minister, described him as a “very kind-hearted man, who used to respect us a lot”. The Left leaders, who never agreed with Vajpayee’s ideology, noted that he “always kept open the lines of consultation when he was in government and reached out to the Opposition parties before taking important decisions”.
Talking about Vajpayee’s charisma and appeal across the border, his onetime media adviser Ashok Tandon recalled; “If his popularity helped him win parliamentary elections 12 times in India, Atal Behari Vajpayee’s oratory — passionate in words and sincere in message — endeared him to people in Pakistan as well… Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif had quipped: ‘Vajpayeeji, ab to aap Pakistan me bhi election jeet sakte hain’ (Vajpayeeji, now you can win elections in Pakistan too).”