Former PM Chandra Shekhar dead; had appointed Manmohan as adviser


New Delhi : Chandra Shekhar, India's 8th (Eds: correct) prime minister who headed a shaky minority government for just seven months in 1990-91 but remained one of the country's most respected politicians, died here Sunday morning after a long battle against bone cancer. He died a week after his 80th birthday.

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His funeral will be held Monday afternoon in the capital.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited him at the hospital Saturday night after hearing about his deteriorating condition.

Manmohan Singh – who was first inducted into the government as economic adviser to the prime minister in November 1990 by Chandra Shekhar – described him as a "true secular nationalist" who "belonged to a generation that felt deeply about the importance of ideals and idealism in politics".

Chandra Shekhar was admitted to the Indraprastha Apollo Hospital here two-and-a-half months ago. He died at the hospital at 8.45 a.m. He is survived by two sons.

His last political act was to issue a statement from hospital supporting the presidential candidature of Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat whom he called a "public figure of eminence, high repute, impeccable credentials".

Chandra Shekhar will be remembered for forging together the first non-Congress government in the country in 1977 after Indira Gandhi was stunningly defeated in the election in a nationwide backlash against her repressive emergency regime.

A onetime Young Turk in the Congress who was even member of the Congress Working Committee, the party's highest policy making body, he fell out with Indira Gandhi for her autocratic ways and became one of her staunchest opponents later on.

As president of the Janata Party, Chandra Shekhar was instrumental in putting together the ragtag coalition of non-Congress parties that was headed by Morarji Desai and was in power from March 1977 to July 1979.

He will be remembered for his trans-country 'padyatra' – a walkathon – across more than 4,200 km in a bid to know the people's problems better.

Later, during his brief stint as head of government for 224 days from November 1990 to June 1991, he allowed American planes to refuel in India on their way to aerial missions in the first Gulf War – a controversial decision that was seen as going against his personal anti-American views.

Chandra Shekhar also took the critical decision to pawn the nation's gold to shore up its precariously dwindling foreign exchange reserves.

After Chandra Shekhar was toppled by the Congress party headed by former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi – that had opportunistically propped him up – on the specious reason that he had sent two policemen to spy on its leaders, he retired to his sprawling farmhouse at Bhondsi (Haryana), on the edge of the capital, where he brainstormed with intellectuals and the dwindling band of socialists on how to tackle the problems of the country.

But despite his best efforts, he could never return to the political mainstream because of his unbending views and the strong ethical values that he attached to the way politics was practised.

A diehard socialist by heart and instinct, Chandra Shekhar was born on July 1, 1927, in Ibrahimpatti of Uttar Pradesh's Ballia district.

A postgraduate from Allahabad University, he was first elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1962. In 1967, he became the general secretary of the Congress Parliamentary Party, but parted ways with it during the emergency regime, when he also was imprisoned along with dozens of opposition leaders. In 1977, he was elected to the sixth Lok Sabha on the Janata Party ticket.

Author of two books "Meri Jail Diary" (in Hindi) and "Dynamics of Social Change", Chandra Shekhar was re-elected to the 14th Lok Sabha in 2004. This was his eighth term in the lower house of parliament.

He edited a magazine called Young Indian that propagated socialist philosophy, but at the same time never hesitated to take advertisements from big business houses like the Birlas.