NEW DELHI, May 14 (UPI) -- Atal Bihari Vajpayee has often been called the right man in the wrong party. Even his detractors don't have much to say against the 79-year-old bachelor statesman.
Despite his lifetime affiliation with right-wing Hindu nationalist political groups, Vajpayee commands a near-universal respect that cuts across the party lines.
The just-concluded election saw political mudslinging reach new lows, but Vajpayee remained unsullied. Although officials from his BJP virulently opposed Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi, Vajpayee distanced himself from the personal attacks.
If the prime minister was charismatic while ruling the country for more than six years spread over two terms, he was equally humble in accepting defeat.
"We may have lost the elections, but India has won," Vajpayee said in an address to the nation after he quit as premier.
He pledged all possible help to his successor.
Vajpayee, widely expected to lead his 22-party National Democratic Alliance to another election win, opted for early elections in the hope the country's resurgent economy would get him more votes. Most exit polls had predicted his party would come close to a majority in parliament.
The opposition Congress Party emerged as the single-largest party, however, and is all set to form a new government with the support of its allies.
Vajpayee retained his seat in the northern Indian town of Lucknow, but his coalition was routed. At least 25 of his Cabinet colleagues lost their seats in parliament.
Vajpayee, an urbane and moderate leader known for his Hindi poetry and outstanding speaking skills, was often referred to as a "mask" of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which came to power on a pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim sentiment.
When BJP leaders, including outgoing deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, encouraged a Hindu mob to tear down a 16th century Muslim mosque in northern India in 1992, a remorseful Vajpayee described himself as a "very lonely man."
Born on Christmas Day in 1926, Vajpayee began his political career during India's struggle for independence from British colonial rule. Following his arrest for anti-colonial activities in 1942, Vajpayee joined the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, or National Voluntary Corps, a militant Hindu revivalist organization, which he saw as a way of resisting British rule.
After India won independence in 1947, Vajpayee helped found the Jan Sangh, a right-wing Hindu political party. He also briefly worked as a journalist. In 1957, he was elected to parliament on a Jan Sangh ticket and remained loyal to the party through successive terms in parliament despite accusations the group was anti-Muslim and had fascist tendencies.
After Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended civil liberties and imposed a period of authoritarian rule in the 1970s, Vajpayee helped form a coalition of left, center and right-wing political groups committed to the restoration of democracy. When the coalition was swept into power in 1977, Vajpayee was named foreign minister, a job that won him accolades for his diplomacy, especially his sensitive management of India's troubled relations with neighboring Pakistan.
In 1980, Vajpayee founded the right-leaning Bharatiya Janata Party, but as Hindu fundamentalists became more influential in the party, he was sidelined. Vajpayee's moderation, relaxed style and ready wit continue to earn him respect across the political spectrum.
During the 1996 elections, the BJP emerged as the largest group by projecting Vajpayee as its prime-ministerial candidate. However, his first stint as prime minister lasted for 13 days as he resigned in the face of a confidence vote he was sure to lose.
He became prime minister for the second time in 1998 following snap elections, and his coalition government lasted for 13 months. He won the elections again in 1999 and was due to rule until September 2004 but chose to call early elections -- a move that backfired.
Vajpayee will go down into the history as a prime minister who not only ordered nuclear tests but also went to great lengths to make friends with neighboring Pakistan. India's foreign reserves swelled from $17 billion to more than $100 billion in 4 1/2 years.
Ahead of the elections, Vajpayee hinted it was his last. His stature won praise from the unlikeliest of people.
"I wish all the best to Vajpayee. I wish him many years in the future. ... I am saying that from my heart and not for the sake of saying it," Rahul Gandhi, the son of the Congress leader, said after winning a seat in parliament.