New Delhi: Few will question the government’s decision on Wednesday to confer the nation’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, on Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the first non-Congress prime minister to complete a full term in office.

A mass leader, natural statesman, powerful orator, prolific poet and lifelong bachelor, Vajpayee was elected to the Lok Sabha 10 times.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) icon, who turns 90 on Christmas Day, holds the rare record of running for Parliament from four different states—Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Gujarat—and winning from all four, in a demonstration of a popularity that transcended state boundaries.

Born in Gwalior on this day in 1924, Vajpayee was a keen student and went on to earn a Master’s degree in political science. He studied law but could not complete the programme.

In an early brush with politics, in 1942, he was jailed for taking part in the Quit India movement.

A founder-member of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, better known as the Jan Sangh and precursor of the BJP, Vajpayee was a dedicated member of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). In his early days in politics, Vajpayee worked closely with the Jan Sangh’s founder, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee.

“Vajpayee is a senior Jan Sangh and BJP leader but he was revered by even those outside party limits," said Ram Bahadur Rai, editor of Yathavat, a Hindi fortnightly news magazine published from Delhi. “He was always considered to be taking decisions that required him to think beyond the interest of his own party."

Vajpayee was first elected prime minister in May 1996—that government lasted only 13 days. It was in the 1996 election campaign that the famous slogan ‘Abki Baari, Atal Bihari’ was coined by the BJP. His second term lasted longer—13 months —and it was then that India carried out the nuclear tests that were met by international sanctions. He went on to complete the entire five-year term in his third stint as the prime minister before the BJP government was ousted in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.

“He became the prime minister only after having served as a lawmaker for more than 45 years. If someone can spend such a long time without a taint on his image or without any controversy, it means a lot," said Rai, who has followed Vajpayee’s political life closely and has known him since 1968.

In his three tenures, Vajpayee was credited with several policy initiatives including what proved eventually to be an abortive peace process with Pakistan. He also faced tough challenges, besides the nuclear sanctions—the Kargil war with Pakistan in 1999 was followed by the Christmas-eve hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane the same year to Kandahar in Afghanistan, that required India to release three jailed militants in exchange for the release of passengers and crew. In 2001, militants attacked the Parliament and in the following year, bloody communal riots erupted in Gujarat.

Domestically, his government launched the national highway project and the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana for building rural roads, introduced the value added tax (VAT) and made a small beginning towards privatization of public sector firms.

“He changed the contours of Indian politics...he introduced a counter narrative in the Parliament which was different from what Congress had been talking about," said Rakesh Sinha, honorary director of the think-tank India Policy Foundation, an RSS member and associate professor of political science at Delhi University.

“Vajpayee always believed in the unity of the opposites and it was this quality that made him popular even among those who were considered his die-hard opponents. He was never vindictive with anybody, whether inside or outside the party," Sinha added.

Vajpayee is no longer in active politics owing to ill-health that has kept him away from public life. He has an adopted daughter he is known to dote on.