If India is one vast enigma, it could have no more apt leader than a Prime Minister who prefers poetry, a rousing orator who shuns the public and a computer illiterate, 79, whose young tech warriors are taking on the world. But Vajpayee's greatest trickand the one that places him among the world's most significant figuresis his pursuit of peace with Pakistan while heading the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People's Party), which rose to power in the 1990s on a wave of Hindu chauvinism. In January the Hindu Vajpayee met Pakistan's Muslim President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad and agreed on talks to try to end a half-century of war and hostility. Anwar Sadat's 1977 mission to Jerusalem is the only other journey in modern history that bears comparison.
Vajpayee's peace initiative has brought him iconic status, no mean feat in a nation in which politicians are generally considered thieves. Mukund Mody, a New York City doctor and friend, was with Vajpayee on the night in May 1998 when India's first nuclear weapon was detonated in the Rajasthan desert. "There was no talk," says Mody. "We had our soup, I left for the airport, and I didn't hear about the test until I got to New York. He keeps to himself. He needs no counsel."
Critics claim it is an old man's obsession with legacy that was the true spur for his trip to Islamabad. Whatever the motive, after three wars with Pakistan in 57 years, the greatest gift any Indian leader can bequeath his people is peace. That the man who exploded the subcontinent's first atom bomb may also lead his nation out of war has both an inconsistency and a karmic symmetry that is pure Vajpayee and pure India.
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