BJP, which has often accused Congress of promoting personality cults, fought the elections in his name on his record of leadership but voters did not buy brand Vajpayee. In survey after survey Vajpayee came out as the country's most popular leader well ahead of Congress President Sonia Gandhi with Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani trailing far, far behind.
An election that was supposed to have been won easily by Vajpayee turned out to be the worst moment in his distinguished public career.
Never a gambler, the 79-year-old leader chose to call the elections six months ahead largely at the insistence of his senior colleagues who spoke of so-called "feel good" and "India shining" factors.
The stunning electoral reverse could eventually mean a sad end to a very distinguished career which saw the rise of a Gwalior school teacher's son to the leadership of a billion people.
Vajpayee completed a rare hatrick of being sworn-in Prime Minister three times consecutively though his first tenure was cut short in 13 days and the second in 1998 in 13 months. May 13, 2004 turned out to be unlucky for him.
Astute parliamentarian, warm and persuasive leader and a sensitive poet, Vajpayee has been described as the moderate and tolerant face of "hardline" party.
He was first sown in as Prime Minister on May 16, 1996 but resigned 13 days later when he failed to muster a majority on the floor of the House.
Vajpayee earlier made his name as External Affairs Minister in the 1977 Janata Party government and later Leader of the Opposition in Parliament.
Though he had a trubulent term in office as Prime Minister during 1998-99, his longer stint came surprisingly after the Kargil conflict when his government was in caretaker capacity.
With a clear majority for his NDA in October 1999, he pushed forward with economic reforms like greater thrust on disinvestment, further opening up of economy to foreign direct investment and above all his repeated forays on the foreign policy front like the peace initiative with Pakistan and for better relations with China.
Born on Christmas day, 1926, at Gwalior to school teacher Krishna Behari, Vajpayee's initiation into politics came as a student when he came in contact with RSS founder Keshavaro Hedgewar and beame a 'Swayamsevak'.
A leader with a clean political image. Vajpayee is credited with giving a liberal and moderate veneer to BJP's face, which opponents and critics dub, not always kindly 'communal and reactionary'.
The public stand of Vajpayee, who once said "political parties should not identify themselves with their religious and cultural background", against Babri mosque's demolition is as famous as his questioning party president L K Advani's rath yatra.
Jailed during the 1942 Quit India Movement -- though there have been allegations that he had given witness against freedom fighters to get released -- Vajpayee. a Post Graduate in political science from Kanpur university. started off as a journalist with RSS magazine 'Rashtradharam'.
External Affairs Minister in the Janata Party government, which came to power in 1977 in the aftermath of emergency. he is credited with taking India's relations with Pakistan to its first upswing after the 1971 war.
During his tenure. Vajpayee set a record by becoming the first-ever Indian Minister to have addressed the UN General Assembly in Hindi, the national language, to get universal applause.
A person with a graceful taste for things apolitical-- his love for poetry. music and cinema is too well known to be written about-- the much-admired orator has also been member of Indian delegations to many an international forum with great success.
Founder-member of Jan Sangh in 1951, the pre-incarnation of BJP. and winner of India's second highest civilian award Padma Vibhushan, Vajpayee led the Indian delegation to the 1993 Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva and scored a diplomatic victory as he forcefully enunciated the country's stand.
Described as a "multifaceted personality and an eminent national leader, an erudite politician. selfless social worker, forceful orator. poet, litterateur and journalist" in the 1994 best parliamentarian award he won, Vajpayee was also member of India's United Nations General Assembly delegations in 1988, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1996.
A protege of Jan Sangh founder Shyama Prasad Mookherjee and one of the most successful parliamentarians, Vajpayee once sprang a surprise -- on Decembet eight, 1974 to be precise -- by announcing his desire to quit Parliament.
The reasons he cited were that parliamentary democracy was no longer an instrument to serve the people of India and that the apex house, instead of exerting itself, had become a 'rubber stamp' of the ruling party.
In the emergency that immediately followed in 1975, the man who headed the erstwhile Jan Sangh during 1968-73 led his flock to the Janata Party in 1977 and become the first chief of BJP after the Janata's split.
During the emergency, Vajpayee wac jailed along with all top opposition leaders by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
He had won Lok Sabha elections nine times and he had also been a member of Rajya Sabha twice.
It was by no means easy sailing for Vajpayee. His first attempt to enter Parliament was an unsuccessful one -- he lost in a by-election in the mid '50s from Lucknow -- the constituency which has stood behind him several times since then.
Vajpayee entered Parliament for the first time in 1957 when he became one of the only four Jan Sangh candidates to win in the general elections.
He defeated Congress candidate Hyder Hussain from Balrampur but lost in the other two constituencies he had contested from -- Lucknow and Mathure-- forfeiting his deposit in the latter.
In 1962, Vajpayee lost the seat to veteran Congress leader Subhadra Joshi but avenged the defeat in 1967 by defeating her by nearly 42,000 votes in a triangular contest.
In 1971, he won from his home constituencey Gwalior and in 1977, riding on the crest of an anti-Congress wave, defeated Shashi Bhushan of Congress by a big margin.
In 1980, he again won Lok Sabha polls and also became the BJP president immediately after its formation.
In 1984, he lost to Madhavrao Scindia in Gwalior and in 1989, he won from both Lucknow and Vidisha but retained the former.
Since then, Vajpayee has not lost any election, winning in 1991, 1996 and 1998 from Lucknow.