MUMBAI, India – Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a “delightful gentleman” and the Church in India will mourn him, says the president of the country’s bishops’ conference.
Vajpayee died on Thursday at the age of 93. He served as prime minister three times: First for just 13 days in 1996, for 13 months in 1998, and then from 1999 to 2004.
Archbishop of Mumbai Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, said he was “deeply saddened” by Vajpayee’s death.
Vajpayee was the first prime minister from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which currently rules under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Considered a more moderate member of the party, he was still the man who ordered India’s first public nuclear test in 1998, leading to an atomic arms race with rival Pakistan.
But he was also the first Indian leader to travel to Pakistan by bus, visiting Lahore in 1999 to meet with then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
“I have met our former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayeji on several occasions when he was the prime minister. He was a remarkable leader with a vision for our country. He had concern for the people especially the disadvantaged,” Gracias said.
“He was very welcoming and warm. He spoke with depth and sincerity and in his conversations would quote poetry and phrases,” the cardinal continued. “He was warm, accessible, inclusive. He was principled and reasonable. I cherish memories of our meetings.”
Vajpayee’s funeral will be held Friday afternoon, and the government has ordered the national flag to be flown at half-staff for seven days as a sign of mourning.