India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was laid to rest, with full state honours, in a ceremony marked by emotion and ritual, preceded by a public procession through the heart of Delhi which was led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on Friday afternoon.
Namita Bhattacharya, Vajpayee’s foster daughter, lit the pyre, amid tears, as South Asia and India’s tallest political leaders grieved in silence, paying their tribute to the three-time former PM and an icon of modern India.
President Ram Nath Kovind, Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu, PM Modi, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, former PM Manmohan Singh, Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah, Congress president Rahul Gandhi, senior BJP leader and one of Vajpayee’s oldest political colleagues, LK Advani, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat were among those present at the funeral.
Leaders from across South Asia were also present to bid farewell to Vajpayee, who had deep relationships with leaders in the region and had invested time and energy in improving relations with countries in the neighbourhood during his time as PM. Bhutan’s monarch Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, former Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai, Nepal’s foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali, Bangladesh’s foreign minister Abul Hassan Mahmud Ali, and Sri Lanka’s acting foreign minister Laxman Kiriella travelled to Delhi to pay their tributes on the occasion.
Vajpayee died on Thursday evening, after a prolonged period of illness. He had been inactive since a stroke in 2009. In June, he was admitted to the All India Institute for Medical Sciences with a kidney and urinary tract infection. His condition deteriorated over the last three days.
The former PM’s death led to an outpouring of condolence messages from across the political spectrum. The cabinet declared a seven-day state mourning and a state funeral at the Rashtriya Smriti Sthal in Delhi.
On Friday morning, Vajpayee’s body was first brought from his residence on Krishna Menon Marg to the new Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters on the Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Marg. Vajpayee was the founding president of the BJP in 1980, and played a critical role in bringing the BJP to power at the Centre. He however, never got a chance to visit the new headquarters.
PM Modi and Shah were waiting at the office, where they paid their respects to the later former PM. So did a range of cabinet ministers, chief ministers, BJP functionaries, opposition leaders, including former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, and Left leaders Sitaram Yechury and D Raja. Party workers had begun pouring in to office since 7 am.
In the afternoon, Vajpayee’s body was then taken to Smriti Sthal.
Leading thousands of workers, supporters, and those in mourning, Modi walked from the party HQ to the site, six kms away. It was a rare sight, for the PM, accompanied senior members of his cabinet, and Shah to march through the crowded streets of central Delhi, surrounded by visibly nervous security men.
Officials realised that Modi would walk with the procession only when he did not get into his car. An official of the Delhi Police, who asked not to be named, said they got a message from the Special Protection Group about Modi’s decision mere minutes before the procession left the BJP headquarters.
Modi subsequently tweeted, “People came from all parts of India, from all sections of society to pay tributes to an extraordinary personality who made an extraordinary contribution to the nation. India salutes you Atal Ji!” He added, “You will live on in the hearts and minds of every Indian. No words can ever do justice to your rich contribution towards the making of our country.”
The PM’s decision, a functionary said, was both a reflection of his personal debt to Vajpayee, his attachment with the former PM, and a recognition of what he meant for the BJP.
In a blog on Friday, Union Minister Arun Jaitley, credited Vajpayee with creating in an era dominated by the Nehruvian Congress, a political party that was an ideological alternative to the Congress, which disagreed on various issues with the Congress, which took the Congress head-on, which struggled for almost five decades and in the last two decades but eventually not only became an alternative to the Congress but overtook it. “Atalji ran a marathon,” Jaitley said. “He was a patient runner.”
But for him, LK Advani and others, Jaitley said, Indian democracy would have looked different – dominated by one party, one family with a lot of scattered smaller parties. “That did not happen. Atalji and his colleagues made the difference.”
At the Smriti Sthal, the cremation was accompanied with military honours, which included a gun salute by a 14-man army squad firing three volleys each. Six army drummers played the Dead March tune, with their instruments covered in black cloth, while six buglers sounded the Last Post and the Rouse.
The Army had, earlier, provided a gun carriage for the coffin, while six pall bearers of the rank of Major or lieutenant colonel or equivalent ranks, two each from the army, navy and the IAF bore the coffin, and a team of 24 military officers maintained round-the-clock vigil, in turns, over the mortal remains — eight each from the three services.
In keeping with the military honours, three service chiefs placed wreaths on the body of Vajpayee before leaders paid their floral tributes.
But as the ceremony ended, it was his foster family which returned to Vajpayee’s side in his final moment. The tricolour that was wrapped around Vajpayee’s body was removed and given to his foster granddaughter Niharika. His daughter Namita, son-in-law Ranjan and Niharika had taken care of the former PM as he was unwell over the past decade. Tales of his fondness and affection for his family abounded. And it was his daughter, who eventually performed the last rites, bringing an end to the life of one of country’s most remarkable men, as India grieved.
First Published: Aug 17, 2018 23:24 IST