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V. P. Singh: Prime Minister of India who tried to improve the lot of the poor

If good intentions rather than hard results were the legacy of politicians, V.P. Singh might have been judged differently. As it transpired, the man who came to power championing the rights of India's poor and promising reform of some of the most inequitable elements of its society ran into widespread opposition from vested interests. As a result, his time in office as Prime Minister of India lasted little less than a year before he was forced out.

Vishwanath Pratap Singh came of age in the city of Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh and started to rise through the ranks of the dominant Congress Party at a time when Jawaharlal Nehru was still prime minister. It was Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi who appointed Singh, in 1980, to be chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India's largest and politically most important state. He served in the position for two years, receiving attention for his efforts to crack down on banditry, and was rewarded with a ministerial post in the central government in 1984 when Rajiv Gandhi was swept to power in general elections following the assassination of his mother.

It was in his role as finance minister that Singh first aimed his guns at some of the bigger names of Indian society, targeting the likes of the industrialist Dhirubhai Ambani and the Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan for alleged tax evasion. Because of the outcry from powerful voices, Gandhi felt pressured to move Singh out of the high-profile position at the finance ministry and switch him to defence.

But there, too, Singh continued his effort to point fingers at the powerful – and again to his detriment. When it emerged that Singh believed he had information that implicated his prime minister in the notorious Bofors arms procurement scandal – when Gandhi and several others were accused of receiving payments from the Bofors arms company for winning a bid to supply field howitzers – Gandhi acted quickly for second time and fired him.

By late 1988, Singh had been selected as head of the Janata Dal, a coalition of centrist parties opposed to the Gandhi government. With the prime minister still stained by the allegations over the Bofors deal, and the coalition having reached an electoral agreement with other political parties on the far left and the nationalist right, the Janata Dal soared to victory in the general election the following year. In the aftermath, the new party, calling itself the National Front, chose Singh to be its premier.

Almost immediately in office, Singh ran into problems. First he was forced to release militants in exchange for the daughter of his home minister who had been kidnapped. His most significant undertaking, however, was to try to implement the long-shelved recommendations of the Mandal Commission of 1979-80, a government-sponsored inquiry that had suggested setting aside a fixed quota of government jobs for India's poorest people, the so-called backward castes.

The plan, designed to create a more equal society, backfired hugely. Across the country there were agitations and demonstrations by upper-caste Indians who believed the move was unfair. In Delhi, a university student called Rajiv Goswami set himself on fire in front of a huge cheering crowd. He survived the ordeal but his actions reportedly triggered a number of copycat events. Singh had no choice but to shelve his plan to carry out the commission's recommendations (they were eventually implemented in 1993.)

Politically weakened, Singh suffered another blow the following year when he had arrested the leader of one his coalition allies who was running a campaign to pull down a mosque said to have been built on the site of a temple in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh that marked the birthplace of Lord Rama. The outraged party, the BJP, subsequently withdrew its support for Singh's coalition. Faced by a vote of confidence in parliament, Singh pleaded: "What kind of India do you want?". Such plantive cries were not enough; he lost the vote 142-346 and was forced to stand down.

Though an urbane and erudite man who enjoyed reading and painting, out of politics Singh appeared to lose much of his energy. His ability to form a coalition government would have a huge impact on other politicians and subsequent administrations. But away from the tussle, he appeared to lose some of his spirit.

In recent years, he had looked into getting back into politics but had been held back by poor health and a battle with recurring cancer. In 2005 he had relaunched his party with the support of one of his sons, Ajeya. It is he who will now lead the party his father created in next year's elections.

Andrew Buncombe

Vishwanath Pratap Singh, politician: born Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh 25 June 1931; Prime Minister of India 1989-90; married (two sons); died Delhi 27 November 2008.