Obituary: Sanjiva Reddy

Sanjiva Reddy rose from humble peasant beginnings in southern India to become the country's sixth president during one of the more turbulent periods in Indian politics.

His five-year tenure as the first Indian to be elected to India's topmost job without the support of the omnipotent Congress Party - which had ruled India since independence in 1947 - was riven with controversy.

The centre-left Janata Party coalition which defeated Congress for the first time in 1977 wanted to right the wrong done Reddy in 1969 by the prime minister Indira Gandhi by successfully making him their presidental nominee. Gandhi had unceremoniously ditched Reddy by withdrawing her support for him as president at the last minute in favour of a "spoiler" candidate, whose election she successfully manipulated.

India's president, who is head of state but not of government, is elected by the legislative college comprising MPs and legislators from all states. He is also the supreme commander of the armed forces and enjoys perhaps the best perquisites of any of his peers around the world, living in an awesome sandstone presidential palace designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, with its own golf course, polo grounds and cavalry.

The Janata Party thought that, since Reddy owed them his job, he would be partial towards them once it became clear that the coalition would collapse under the weight of internecine rivalry, personality clashes and individual ambition, and would appoint one of their nominees to head a minority government.

But, amidst great controversy, Reddy installed a lame-duck prime minister, who lasted barely a few months, thus paving the way for a mid-term poll which led to Indira Gandhi's return to power in 1980 and a period of turbulence which ended with her assassination four years later.

Sanjiva Reddy was born in 1913 into a rich agricultural household in the famine-prone Anantpur district of Andhra Pradesh. He matriculated from the Theosophical High School at Madras and attended the local Adyar Arts College, but left in 1931 to join the Congress Party, then in the forefront of India's freedom movement.

He was elected to the Madras assembly in 1946, a year before independence, and, soon after, to the Constituent or interim Assembly of Free India. A string of ministerial posts followed, but it was only in 1960 that he was baptised as a national leader when he succeeded Gandhi as president of the ruling Congress Party, with her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, as prime minister. Two years later he returned home as chief minister of the newly created Andhra Pradesh state.

In 1964, however, Reddy resigned of his own accord, ostensibly to set high standards in public life; however, unable to stay away from power, he returned to national politics as an MP. But in 1969, after his defeat as the presidential candidate, he retired to his village in the south. "What can a poor farmer do if the fence itself swallows the field?" he said, and remained in the political wilderness for eight years. But in 1977 he emerged from his exile, first as an MP and a few months later as India's sixth president, elected unopposed.

Blunt and forthright, Reddy claimed that he had been widely misunderstood as he was basically a peasant and lacked upper-class niceties. Unlike other former Indian presidents, however, he often commented on government after retiring and recently withdrew his biography from the printers as many people mentioned in it had received harsh treatment from him and were still alive.

Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, politician: born Illuru village, Anantapur District, south India 19 May 1913; Secretary, Andhra Pradesh Congress Committee 1936-46; President, Indian National Congress 1960-62; Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh 1962-64; President of India 1977-82; married (three daughters); died Bangalore 1 June 1996.