Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who led India's first government ruled by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), died on Aug. 16 of an age-related illness in a New Delhi hospital. He was 93. The BJP's founding president, known as a moderate, holds the unique distinction of heading the world's largest democracy for a mere 16 days in 1996. "The nation will remember him as a leader who yearned for a country where everyone lived in peace and harmony," said Cardinal Oswald Gracias
, president of the Indian bishops' conference. India has lost "one of its tallest leaders" who charmed Indians for decades "with his wonderful mixture of poetry and prose" delivered "with humor, wit and a well-modulated voice," he said. Cardinal Gracias recalled his several meetings with Vajpayee and said "every meeting was a delight because of the warmth of his person, his sharp intellect and his passion for the country." "He wanted an India where no one was excluded, no one suffered want and everyone enjoyed the benefits of progress," the cardinal said. With Vajpayee at the helm, the BJP gained political prominence and he returned to power in 1998 for over one year and then in 1999 for a full term of five years. The foundations the party laid under Vajpayee helped it win a landslide victory in the 2014 election under the leadership of present Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi and his government are accused, by Christian and Muslim leaders, of tacitly allowing Hindu groups to continue harassment and violence against minorities in their rush to create a nation of Hindu upper-caste hegemony. Cardinal Gracias also remembered "with joy and nostalgia" a meeting with Vajpayee and Pope St. John Paul II during the 1999 papal visit to India. The Catholic Church in India will also remember with affection Vajpayee's admiration for St. Teresa of Kolkata
, the cardinal said. He quoted Vajpayee as saying that "in the age of cynicism she was a symbol of understanding faith." The leader, known for his oratorical skills and use of the Hindi language, will be remembered for his "warm human relationship cutting across religious, political or regional divides," said the cardinal. Vajpayee was born on Christmas Day in 1924. The son of a teacher who liked Hindi literature, he made a niche for himself as a poet-politician. Observers say he often successfully used his love for verses in Hindi to his advantage. Vajpayee's tenure also saw anti-Christian violence including the killing of Australian missionary Graham Stuart Staines, who was burned to death with sons Philip, 10, and Timothy, 6, by a gang of Hindu radicals on Jan. 23, 1999, while they were sleeping in his station wagon in Manoharpur village of Odisha state. In 2002, during the height of anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, Vajpayee had dropped hints about sacking Narendra Modi
, then chief minister of the western state, but Modi continued amid claims that Vajpayee had given in to pressure from extremists.
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"Now that he is dead, we should not be speaking ill about him, but it is true that as prime minister Vajpayee failed to protect Christian missionaries like Staines or protect Muslims," said a Congress party leader on condition of anonymity.