When Atal Behari Vajpayee led a fractious coalition to power in 1999, no one expected it to last. It did last for the full term of the government, a first for India where previous such combinations had crashed amidst differences. This success said a lot about Vajpayee's charisma and personal rapport with smaller parties representing varied interests.
To his supporters, and there are many, Vajpayee represented a moderate face. He was a consensus builder, and had the ability to push through reforms, something that the Modi government has found difficult to do despite enjoying a majority. Vajpayee's government was made up of politicians such as Mamta Banerjee, M. Karunanidhi, and J. Jayalalithaa, all volatile and rather unpredictable. Vajpayee managed to keep them together.
During his government's rule, Vajpayee oversaw fundamental shifts that defined India. He firmly embraced globalisation, and aligned India more firmly toward the United States than any previous prime minister. He allowed nuclear tests at Pokhran for the first time after 1974, despite the threat of sanctions which were subsequently levied, and lifted. Vajpayee responded in parliament on the issue, saying this would be a minimum deterrent to future threats.
The national highway program was initiated, and proceeded faster than under governments that followed. This was the first time due importance was given to building roads that would connect India and make it possible to transport goods faster, and reach farther.
Vajpayee was the moderate face of the Bharatiya Janata Party, while the more hardline L.K. Advani led the party's controversial mass movements such as the Ram Janmabhoomi movement from the front. But from two seats in Lok Sabha in the 1984 election to forming the government in 1998, Vajpayee led the party's emergence into the political mainstream. The erstwhile Jana Sangh, where Vajpayee started his political career, had merged with the Janata Party after the end of the Emergency in 1977. The BJP was formed in 1980 with Vajpayee as its president.
Vajpayee's role during the demolition of Babri Masjid remains controversial. The video of a speech he had apparently delivered to the party's cadre a day before the demolition has been repeatedly brought up by those who argue that his his secular image is a carefully cultivated one.
His critics also blame him for not doing enough to rein in the more extreme elements in his party. It has been reported that he wanted Narendra Modi to resign as Gujarat chief minister after the religious riots in Gujarat in 2002. But he ultimately gave in to pressure from the party.
He used his political skills to overcome opposition within the coalition such as during the disinvestment process led that time by Arun Shourie. Subsequent Congress governments have failed to make much headway compared with the pace set during Vajpayee's term. He also led to better relations with not just United States, but also Russia and China. And made a bid for peace with Pakistan. On these issues he clearly set the course.
Throughout his time as a politician, Vajpayee indulged in his love of poetry, to both make statements and at times to answer questions. His powerful oratorial style made it popular.
Vajpayee was 79 when he left office after an unexpected defeat by the Congress party in 2004. Ill-health had dogged him throughout his term as prime minister. He had a knee surgery and walking was difficult. In later years, poor health led to his withdrawal from public life and he spent most of his time with his foster family.
He remains somewhat of an enigma: was he a truly secular leader of a rightist party? Or was he a mask that hid the less palatable hardline Hindutva ideology of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar? These questions will always linger over his political legacy. But it a measure of his political appeal that leaders cutting across the political spectrum have welcomed the nation's ultimate honour being conferred on the most popular leader of the Indian right.