NEW DELHI – Atal Bihari Vajpayee (search) changed the face of the world's largest democracy before his six years as prime minister ended Thursday, transforming it into a nuclear power and an economic leader.
He came to the brink of war with Pakistan, then tempered his Hindu nationalism and sought peace with his mainly Muslim neighbor.
Pushing through market-led reforms, he energized India's economy — but the boom times failed to deliver quick prosperity to millions of rural poor who deserted his coalition government at the polls.
The 79-year-old bachelor — who has arthritic knees and kidney disease — was first elected to the Lok Sabha (search), the lawmaking lower house of Parliament, in 1957.
He stepped down on Thursday, handing his resignation to President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam at the ornate presidential palace, and was expected to address the nation on state-run television.
Vajpayee was driven to his last appointment as the head of this country of 1 billion people in a white, Indian-made Ambassador car, part of a caravan filled with aides, police and army security guards.
George Fernandes, his defense minister, said Vajpayee was taking his Bharatiya Janata Party's (search) loss in stride.
"The prime minister is a veteran of many, many such battles," he said. "There is no way of his feeling dejected."
Throughout term, the prime minister was something of a puzzle. An accomplished poet, he lives with his adopted daughter, her husband and their daughter, along with a pack of dogs and cats.
He came to power brandishing Hindu nationalism in a country that previously professed nonsectarian values. He set off an arms race with rival Pakistan with nuclear tests in 1998 — then declared he would make India a developed nation by 2020.
Negotiating from a position of strength, he excelled as a diplomat and forged close ties with Washington and two longtime foes, Israel and China.
If Vajpayee's overtures to Pakistan result in lasting peace, that would be his greatest legacy. He stunned the nation last year by calling for renewed dialogue with Pakistan over Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan province over which the two South Asian nations have twice gone to war.
His efforts led to resumed diplomatic and transportation links. Talks about Kashmir are scheduled for later this year, culminating with a summit between the leaders of India and Pakistan.
It's widely believed the new government would follow this map, as the opposition supported Vajpayee's peace efforts.
He opened up India to the world economically as well, breaking down trade barriers, dismantling monopolies and selling off state assets in a bid to get on the global trading map.
Vajpayee first became prime minister in 1996 but was out within days, a victim of parliamentary instability. His present term dated from 1998, the longest since the Congress party of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty was in power.
Vajpayee's archrival, Congress leader Sonia Gandhi (search), has accused his government of neglecting India's impoverished rural population while fanning communal disharmony among the country's Hindus and Muslims.
While well-educated urbanites were dazzled by the BJP's "India Shining" campaign, one-fourth of the rural population is still miserably poor. India's per capita income has jumped from $370 to $480 in just four years, but it's still one of the world's lowest.