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FILE PHOTO: Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee speaks during a news conference in the eastern Indian university town of Shantiniketan, northwest of Calcutta, India April 2, 2004. REUTERS/Jayanta Shaw/File Photo

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who ordered nuclear tests to make India a nuclear weapons power and travelled by bus to Pakistan in a grand diplomatic gesture, died on Thursday, the hospital where he was being treated said in a statement.

He was 93.

A poet-politician, Vajpayee was one of the most popular leaders of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

But unlike Modi, who critics say is a polarising figure despite his pledge of inclusive development for India's 1.3 billion people, Vajpayee was the moderate face of Hindu nationalism, admired even by prominent political foes.

Vajpayee served as prime minister briefly in 1996 then again from 1998 to 2004.

"Former PM, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was loved and respected by millions. My condolences to his family & all his admirers. We will miss him," Rahul Gandhi, president of the opposition Congress party, tweeted.

Vajpayee was one of the few leaders of the BJP to express anguish when hundreds of Muslims were killed rioting in 2002 in the western state of Gujarat, which Modi governed.

Vajpayee called the 1992 destruction of a 16th-century mosque on a disputed site by Hindu fanatics India's darkest hour.

However, he also defended a Hindu campaign for construction of a temple on the disputed site, which Hindus believe was the birthplace of god-king Rama.

Modi said Vajpayee's stewardship had put India on a fast track to growth.

"It was Atal Ji's exemplary leadership that set the foundations for a strong, prosperous and inclusive India in the 21st century," Modi said in a tweet.

Vajpayee suffered a stroke in 2009 and retreated from public view. Leaders of the BJP were gathering at his home in New Delhi to pay their respects.

As premier, Vajpayee was not afraid to take risks. He gave the go-ahead for underground nuclear tests in 1998 believing nuclear weapons would be deterrent against China and Pakistan.

Pakistan responded to those tests with six of its own, forever altering South Asian security, launching both countries on a race to amass the weapons.

But a year later, Vajpayee rode on the first bus to begin a new service from Delhi to the Pakistani city of Lahore in a rare trip by an Indian premier to mend ties with the neighbour.

(Writing by Sanjeev Miglani and Sudarshan Varadhan; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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Reuters