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Last Updated: Friday, 30 December 2005, 09:53 GMT
Profile: Atal Behari Vajpayee
Atal Behari Vajpayee at the Hyderabad meeting
Mr Vajpayee has been one of India's most durable leaders
The decision by former Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to retire from active politics has come as a shock to his supporters and admirers.

One of his country's most durable and charismatic leaders, Mr Vajpayee had been India's longest serving prime minister, outside of the once-dominant Congress Party.

Before his electoral reverse in 2004, he had completed six straight years in office spread over two terms.

Often described as the moderate face of his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), he had developed a wider appeal than his more hardline colleagues.

Despite a health scare a few years ago, Mr Vajpayee's position both within his party and in the country had appeared very strong.

Those close to him say his personal mission had been to improve relations with Pakistan.

As foreign minister in the 1970s, he managed to forge closer links with India's rival nuclear power.

During this current term of office, he had made two attempts to improve ties with Pakistan.

The first ended in a failed summit in 2001.

However, the second has borne more fruit. A peace process is now well established, although it is not clear how major differences over Kashmir will be resolved.

Years of experience

A master orator, Atal Behari Vajpayee has been politically active for more than half a century.

A high caste Brahmin, he was born in 1926 in the central state of Madhya Pradesh.

As a teenager he was jailed briefly for opposing British colonial rule, but played no major part in the freedom movement.

He flirted with communism before choosing to support the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swamyamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Jan Sangh - both right-wing organisations that later developed close links with the BJP.

He dropped out of law school to run an RSS magazine in the early 1950s.

Later, he transcended his political roots in the RSS to emerge as the moderate voice of the BJP.

Reaching out

The BJP's Hindu revivalism has antagonised most of India's huge Muslim population, as well as other minorities and many moderate Hindus.

Mr Vajpayee has, at times, tried to appeal to Muslims and other minority groups, and he has been a reassuring figure for India's mainly secular establishment.

His personal integrity has never been seriously questioned, but arms bribery scandals have exposed corruption in his government and at times cast doubt on his judgment.

A lifelong bachelor, he lists cooking as one of his hobbies and writes intellectual poetry in his spare time.

Once marked out as a leader to watch by India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, at 79 Mr Vajpayee is in the twilight of his political career.

Many believed he had been seeking a final electoral victory, that would have cemented his legacy as one of India's most powerful and successful leaders.

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