NEW DELHI – Thousands of Indians gathered Friday as the funeral pyre was lit for former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a Hindu nationalist who was respected across the political spectrum.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the mourners who walked under a hot sun behind a flower-decked gun carriage carrying Vajpayee’s body to a cremation ground on the banks of the Yamuna river.
Vajpayee, both a poet and a politician, died Thursday at age 93 in a New Delhi hospital.
His foster daughter lit the funeral pyre in a riverside enclave of memorials where the country’s other former prime ministers have also been cremated.
Top Indian politicians, including Rahul Gandhi of the opposition Congress party, and South Asian leaders including Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali, also attended the cremation.
Pakistan arranged a special flight so a four-member delegation led by Information Minister Ali Zafar could attend.
Earlier Friday, supporters chanting “Long Live Vajpayee!” escorted his body from his home to the Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters where admirers came to pay their last respects.
In many ways Vajpayee was a complicated figure, a leader of the moderate wing of India’s often-strident Hindu nationalist movement and a lifelong poet who oversaw India’s growth into a strutting regional economic power. He ordered nuclear tests in 1998 that raised fears of atomic war with Pakistan, but also, a few years later, reached across the border and made the first moves toward peace with Islamabad.
The government has declared a seven-day mourning period for him. Schools were closed Friday in the Indian capital.
The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, sent a condolence message to Vajpayee’s foster daughter, Namita Bhattacharya, saying India had lost an eminent national leader who had eloquently supported the Tibetan people.
Vajpayee served three times as India’s prime minister; for 13 days in 1996, for 13 months from 1998 to 1999, and then from 1999 to 2004.
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