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Last Updated: Friday, 30 December 2005, 10:00 GMT
How will history remember Vajpayee?
By Gary Kitchener
BBC News Online South Asia desk

Atal Behari Vajpayee
Vajpayee: "We have lost an election, not our determination"
Former Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has announced his retirement from active politics, a year after his shock defeat in the general election.

It draws to a close the career of one of India's most influential and charismatic politicians, and the most significant one outside of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

Before the 2004 elections, few people expected him to fade so soon.

Yet soon after his defeat, the man many thought was sure of a fourth term in office, appeared on TV screens to deliver details of his resignation and, for one last time as premier, list his achievements.

Economic development, national unity and a "historic peace process" with Pakistan, he said, had left India better off than when he took office.

"My party and alliance have lost, but India has won," Mr Vajpayee said.

Then with the philosophical words, "victory and defeat are a part of life which are to be viewed with equanimity" and a farewell "Jai Hind" (Hail India), he was gone.

History will remember Atal Behari Vajpayee as one of India's finest prime ministers
Vir Sanghvi,
writing in the Times of India

Perhaps it is too soon for Indians to properly assess Mr Vajpayee's achievements, but there are many who would agree with his own verdict.

Vir Sanghvi, writing in The Hindustan Times, said the premier's exit was not the one he expected and not the one he deserved.

"Regardless of the circumstances of the Bharatiya Janata Party's shock defeat... history will remember Atal Behari Vajpayee as one of India's finest prime ministers," Sanghvi wrote.

Unwieldy coalition

This would not have been the verdict after his first term in office in 1996 - it lasted less than a fortnight.

Nor even after the second, which began in 1998 and lasted 18 months.

Former Prime Minister Vajpayee (L) with President Musharraf
Peace with Pakistan may prove Vajpayee's greatest legacy

But his third lasted the full term and was achieved as the head of a multi-party coalition.

It was the first time since independence that a non-Congress party government had completed its term.

For many observers, Mr Vajpayee's successful steering of what appeared to be an unwieldy coalition was his biggest achievement.

It also changed the complexion of Indian politics.

It is now widely believed that India can no longer be ruled by a single party and that only a multi-party coalition can truly represent the people of this vast democracy.

Ironically, his success in coalition-building has aided his enemies - Congress acted thoroughly in firming up its own allies ahead of the polls.

A traditional war cry in elections is, "It's the economy, stupid", but for Mr Vajpayee the health of India's economy was a double-edged sword.

The 300 million-strong middle classes were delighted at the economic growth and reform programmes achieved under the BJP.

India became an emerging power in information technology, business processing outsourcing and biotechnology.

But this was less than half the story, and the poorer members of society who felt left out brought about Mr Vajpayee's downfall.

Gujarat riots

Mr Vajpayee certainly had few opponents to his landmark efforts for peace with Pakistan.

BJP poster showing LK Advani and Atul Behari Vajpayee
The BJP is left licking its wounds

This was a man who almost took India to war with Pakistan over Kashmir two years ago but who took the gamble to offer the hand of friendship in April 2003.

The past year has brought a significant improvement in relations and the roadmap to peace he has helped draw could still prove to be his greatest legacy.

The greatest blot on his copybook may be the Gujarat riots of 2002.

More than 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, died in some of the worst religious violence in decades.

The riots followed an attack on a train in which 59 Hindu activists were killed.

Many criticised the government for being slow to react, in particular because the state was also governed by the BJP.

For some, it was a sign that the BJP was unwilling to let go of its Hindu nationalist agenda, an ideology that frightened India's minorities.

Gujarat religious riots
The BJP was accused of a slow reaction to Gujarat's riots
Nevertheless, most observers will want to accentuate the positive, and Mr Vajpayee's final address after his resignation as prime minsiter gave no hint he had lost any of his enthusiasm.

"Dear countrymen," he had said, "we have given up office but not our responsibility to serve the nation. We have lost an election, but not our determination."

Now that Mr Vajpayee has elected to withdraw from politics, few Indians would begrudge the 79-year-old, who suffers from arthritis and kidney disease, a peaceful retirement.


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