Atal Bihari Vajpayee, one of India’s most-admired and towering politicians, was given the highest national send-off today after a procession through the streets of Delhi followed by a sea of people. His last rites were performed by his foster daughter Namita Bhattacharya. Prime Minister Narendra Modi walked the entire four km stretch behind the flower-decked gun carriage as it made its way to the funeral ground on the banks of the river Yamuna.
BJP president Amit Shah, several union ministers and chief ministers also walked in the procession. The massive crowd chanted “long live Atal-ji” and showered rose petals on the glass casket carrying the three-time prime minister, who died yesterday after a long illness.
“I am speechless, numb,” PM Modi had said, expressing his grief yesterday. “It’s like losing a father.”
He surprised many today by joining the procession from the BJP office to the Smriti Sthal, which is located close to the memorials of former prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri. At the cremation site, he laid a wreath and bowed before the body.
Former prime minister Manmohan Singh, Congress president Rahul Gandhi and many others across party lines attended the funeral. Foreign dignitaries like the King of Bhutan and Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai were also present.
The former PM’s body was kept overnight at the bungalow on Krishna Menon road where he spent the last few years away from public life. From there, it was taken on the flower-decked gun-carriage to the office of the BJP, the party he helped form in 1980. The BJP patriarch could never visit the new, sprawling headquarters symbolic of the rise of the party he nurtured for decades.
Mr Vajpayee, who ruled the country thrice in the 1990s, had retreated from politics over the last few years because of his health.
It was widely reported that the former prime minister had a stroke in 2009 that severely affected his ability to speak and confined him to his home.
Mr Vajpayee was the first non-Congress leader since India’s independence in 1947 to complete an entire term in office as head of a BJP-led ruling alliance between March 1998 and May 2004. His rich oratory and poetic jibes directed at opponents were popular on both sides of the political divide.