New Delhi: A master manipulator of power politics, veteran Congress leader Arjun
Singh, who has had a long and chequered career in Madhya Pradesh as Chief Minister and as Union Minister, died here on Friday after a protracted illness.

Singh (81), who was admitted to AIIMS a few days ago with chest pain and neuro problems, complained of breathing problem around 1730 hours.  He suffered a heart attack and breathed his last around 1815 hours, sources said.

Incidentally, Singh was today dropped from the party's highest policy making body Congress Working Committee today and was made a Permanent Invitee.

Singh leaves wife Saroj Kumari, two sons--Ajay Singh, an MLA in Madhya Pradesh and Abhimanyu--and daughter Veena.

A loyalist of the Gandhi family and considered a shrewd strategist, Singh was Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh between 1980 and 1985 and was made Governor of Punjab just a day after he took oath as Chief Minister for the second time in the
state.

He became Governor at the height of militancy and helped a young Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi reach an accord with Akali Dal leader Sant Harchand Singh Longowal which came to be known Rajiv-Longowal peace accord.

He had also prestigious portfolios at the Centre as Commerce and Communication Minister in the eighties and HRD Minister under P V Narasimha Rao in the nineties.

A leader, who swore by secular ideals, turned against Rao in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992.

Though he did not resign from his government immediately, he later parted ways with Rao and formed a rebel Congress under the leadership of N D Tiwari in 1994.

Singh, who was Vice President of the party under Rajiv Gandhi, rejoined Congress after Rao quit as party President and later spearheaded the campaign for the ouster of DMK ministers in the United Front government in 1997 over the Jain Commission report. The UF government under I K Gujral fell in the face of the campaign.

Singh was a close adviser to Sonia Gandhi when she decided to enter politics and became Congress President in 1998.  He was said to have been behind her unsuccessful attempt to become Prime Minister after the fall of the Vajpayee government in April 1999.

Gandhi then staked her claim to form government on the basis of support of 272 MPs but ultimately she did not have the numbers. But the political wheel turned a full circle when he lost his proximity to Sonia Gandhi and that could have played
a part in not being able to realise his prime ministerial ambitions.
However, as HRD minister in the first UPA government from 2004, Singh was instrumental in championing the cause of backward classes and piloted bills for ensuring reservation for them in institutions of excellence.

With failing health, Singh, who started using a wheel chair in the last years, did not not make it to the Union Cabinet when Manmohan Singh took oath as Prime Minister for a second time.

But his strong loyalty to the Gandhi family came into prominence when he made a rare appearance in the Rajya Sabha last year to apportion blame on the late Narasimha Rao to say that Union Carbide chief Warren Anderson was allowed to go out of the country under the instructions from the home ministry
then headed by Rao.

Born in Churhat in Sidhi district of Madhya Pradesh in November 1930, Singh studied law and entered politics to become a member of the state assembly in 1957 where he continued till 1985.

During his political career, he came under a cloud over what came to be known as "Churhat" lottery scandal during his tenure as Chief Minister.

Singh became Minister of State for Agriculture in Madhya Pradesh in 1963 and steadily rose in positions there. He was Leader of the Opposition from 1977 to 1980 when the Janata Party broke Congress monopoly in power in the Hindi
heartland after the Emergency.

At the national level in the party, he was member of the CWC and Parliamentary Board and when elections were held for the Working Committee at the AICC session in Tirupati 1992, Singh won by the highest margin of votes.

When again CWC elections took place in Kolkata in 1997, he won his place in the CWC.

In his last days, he was focussed on writing his auto biography "A Grain of Sand in the Hourglass of Time" which he had planned to release shortly. There was speculation that the Congress veteran, who never shied away from controversies,
would have tilted at the mills.

(Agencies)