New Delhi: Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who turns 88 on Christmas Day, remains one of India`s most popular and charismatic political leaders whose name continues to be invoked by party campaigners.
But his health remains a cause of concern and those in the know say he is often confined to a wheelchair and fails to recognise people.
No one, not even leaders of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is willing to talk publicly about Vajpayee`s health. But those who have access to him are unanimous that he is seriously unwell.
The assessments, however, vary.
Besides dementia, or gradual deterioration of memory and mental functions, the veteran leader, who was three-time prime minister, is known to be a long-term diabetic. He also has age-related illness.
When he was prime minister, Vajpayee underwent knee replacement surgery at Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai in 2001.
At one time, he used to get into aircraft and deboard with the help of a special lift.
A relative told that doctors are against too many people calling on him at his 6-A, Krishna Menon Matg residence where he moved after he left 1 Race Course Road, the prime minister`s residence, following his election defeat in 2004. Informed sources said only close relatives and senior party leaders are permitted to call on him and that too only occasionally.
"Sometimes he appears to recognise people but his attempts to speak often fail," the relative said.
He is not known to have attended any public event in recent years. He rarely ventures out of the house, except for checkups at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences here.
An aide during Vajpayee`s prime ministerial tenure told reporters, "He is under constant medical care. Doctors have been advising against visitors. Even I have decided not to seek a visit."
The source added, "It is a sad situation which many elderly go through. He is immobile, having several health problems and undergoing continuous medication.
Another former aide said Vajpayee appeared to recognise him when he called on him briefly at his residence here.
"He is occasionally seated on a wheelchair...sometimes he takes a few steps with the help of attendants," he said.
One of the founder leaders of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the BJP`s predecessor, Vajpayee was India`s foreign minister when the Janata Party took power in 1977.
He was prime minister for 13 days in 1996, then for 13 months from March 1998 onwards and presided over the country for a third time from October 1999 to May 2004, when the Congress ousted the BJP. He did not contest the 2009 Lok Sabha election.
Even his political foes consider him one of India`s most experienced politicians with a mass base spread across the length and breadth of the country.
Vajpayee`s long-term colleague and BJP veteran L.K. Advani said recently that he missed Vajpayee.
Advani recalled his long association with Vajpayee at a rally here Nov 20.
BJP members are looking forward to a birthday `darshan` of Vajpayee and many plan to use his name and put his picture on billboards to draw votes.
Said Anil Sharma, a BJP activist from Delhi: "I will reach Vajpayeeji`s residence with a bouquet on Dec 25. Let me see whether the security people will permit me."