Former PM Chandra Shekhar dies after battling cancer


New Delhi : Chandra Shekhar, India's 11th prime minister who headed a wobbly coalition 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 was 80.

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He died a week after his 80th birthday. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited him at the hospital just Saturday night after hearing about his deteriorating condition.

The prime minister later described Chandra Shekhar 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 around 8.45 a.m. He is survived by two sons. He will be cremated Monday.

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".

"He combines a lifetime's experience of dedicated public service with rare qualities of head and heart. A public figure of eminence, high repute, impeccable credentials, Mr Shekhawat has discharged his latest responsibilities as the country's Vice President entirely beyond party affiliations and with impeccable secular credentials.

"I wholeheartedly and without any reservation endorse/propose the election of Mr Bhairon Singh Shekhawat as our next President," he said in a statement.

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.

As president of the Janata Party, he was instrumental in putting together the rainbow coalition of parties that was headed by Morarji Desai and was in power from March 1977 to July 1979.

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 going against his personal anti-American views.

He will also 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.

He collected a huge amount of money from the walk from ordinary people and questions were raised later as to what was done with the money that was put into a special trust created by him.

After Chandra Shekhar was toppled by the Congress party – that had propped him up – on the specious reason that he had sent policemen to spy on its leaders, he retired to his sprawling 'farmhouse' at Bhondsi, at 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 again to the political mainstream because of his unbending views on issues and the strong ethical values that he attached to the way politics was practiced.

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 the 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 the party during the Emergency, when he also underwent a jail term. In 1977, he was elected to the sixth Lok Sabha on a 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.