Plane crashes, terrorist victims, accidents, tragedies... seem to have haunted Congress party eerily in its recent history. The shocking news of the crash of a plane carrying charismatic Congress leader and a scion of Gwalior royal family, Madhavrao Scindia, near Mota village in Bhogaon tehsil of Mainpuri district of central Uttar Pradesh, on Sunday afternoon, killing all eight persons on board is the latest in this series of misfortunes to have hit the beleagured party.
There were seven more persons on board apart from Scindia, including four journalists, when the ten-seater private plane carrying them crashed in a paddy field near here in heavy rains and poor visibility.
Scindia's personal secretary Rupinder Singh, Delhi-based journalists -- Anju Sharma (Hindustan Times), Sanjeev Sinha (Indian Express), Ranjan Jha (Aaj Tak) and Gopal Bisht (Aaj Tak TV cameraman), Pilot Ray Gautam and co-pilot Ritu perished when the engine of Cessna C-90 aircraft caught fire and the plane nose-dived into the field in Motta village bursting into flames around 2.30 pm.
Poor visibility because of rains also appeared to be one of the reasons for the crash, district police chief Sridhar Pathak said.
All the bodies, charred beyond recognition, were being taken to Agra by road from where they would be brought to Delhi by a special IAF aircraft sent by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee whom Scindia had defeated in Lok sabha poll in Gwalior in 1984.
Scindia, a veteran parliamentarian and rated as a Congress prime ministerial candidate before the 1999 Lok Sabha elections in the aftermath of controversy over Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin, was on his way to address a rally in Kanpur.
For the Congress, it is the second loss of a young leader after the death of Rajesh Pilot in a road accident last year.
Home Minister Advani told reporters in New Delhi that Scindia's son Jyotiraditya is going in the plane to identify his father's body alongwith one member from each of the bereaved families.
Replying to a question, the home minister said all the bodies had been recovered and postmortem would be conducted tomorrow morning.
The plane, a chartered flight belonging to Jindal Strips, took off at 12.39 pm and was en route to Kanpur, where Scindia was to address public meetings. The plane was to reach Kanpur at 1.50 pm, but it abruptly lost contact with Lucknow Air Traffic Control at 1.20 pm.
Scindia, 56, was on his way to Kanpur to address a party rally later this evening. Mani Shankar Aiyer, who was supposed to accompany him, told Star News that Madhavrao had requested him to change plans so as to accomodate the journalists whom he had already invited.
Politicians cutting across party lines -- Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Congress president Sonia Gandhi with daughter Priyanka and Home Minister Lal Kishinchand Advani were among the first to arrive -- Union Law Minister Arun Jaitley, Congress leaders R K Dhawan, Najma Heptullah and Dr Manmohan Singh, and former prime minister Inder Kumar Gujral were among the many thronging the Scindia household.
Sophisticated, suave, articulate, Madhavrao Scindia, with the distinction of beating Atal Behari Vajpayee, in the 1984 Lok Sabha elections was long seen as prime-ministerial material by those within and outside the Congress party. Indeed, he had emerged as the defacto and even de jure Number Two in the party with his appointment as the Deputy Floor Leader in the Lok Sabha and was largely seen trusted lieutenant of Congress president and Leader of Opposition Sonia Gandhi.
Scindia was one of those few who joined the Congress in 1977, when Indira Gandhi lost power and was handpicked by Rajiv Gandhi in 1989 to set up a new office, when Congress lost the elections under Rajiv and served with distinction in various ministerial positions. He is widely regarded as one of the best Railway Ministers India ever had and the various Shatabadis will remain as his contribution to Indian railways commuters.
After having served in Narasimha Rao's cabinet with distinction, he was denied party ticket to contest the elections in 1996, in the wake of the Hawala scandal. That is when he floated his own Madhya Pradesh Vikas Congress (MPVC), but returned to the Congress, within a year, soon after Sitaram Kesri became Congress president.
Scindia had the distinction of being elected in all the successive elections since 1971 till 1999. Extremely charismatic, and articulate in both Hindi and English, the former Maharaja of Gwalior was one of those rare Congress leaders at the centre with a mass base of his own.
A Sporting Politician
Despite hectic schedules he had to keep as a politician, Scindia always had time for sports and welfare of sportspersons.
An active weekend cricketer and a keen amateur golfer, Scindia brought all his administrative and diplomatic acumen he was famous for, in the running of sports in the country both as an administrator and as a minister.
Indian Olympic Association president Suresh Kalmadi said it was a "big blow to the sporting community. Personally I have lost a very, very good friend and the country has lost yet another good leader".
Cricket Board vice-president C K Khanna said the death of the sport buff was a "tremendous loss to Indian sports in general and cricket in particular".
Scindia's tenure as Human Resource Development Minister (in charge of Sports too) in 1995-96 in the P V Narasimha Rao government was too short for him to do much. But it was Scindia's ability to look at the problems from a sportsperson's angle too that marked him out.
To him goes the credit for taking big time cricket to his hometown Gwalior where the stadium is curiously named after one of the hockey legends of the country Capt Roop Singh - younger brother of the immortal Dhyan Chand.
He also spurred the Madhya Pradesh cricket team to rise from the level of poor country cousins to that of one of the front-runners on the domestic scene.
In a message, Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association secretary Sanjay Jagdale said the death of Scindia was a personal loss to the state unit which rose to great heights during his stewardship and had the distinction of hosting many international matches.
Always lending a sympathetic ear to the troubled, Scindia was a sporting politician, a rare breed indeed.