Shimla:  Congress veteran and former Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, who remained at the helm of the state for a record six times, had devoted over 50 years for the common people despite being born in royalty.

The veteran leader passed away early on Thursday morning in Shimla at the age of 87, leaving behind a rich political legacy.

Being a charismatic leader, he was known for having no qualms about folding his hands and bowing before the commoners to seek votes for the party — be it in the Assembly polls, parliamentary elections or even for the civic body polls.

A nine-time legislator and five-time MP, Singh, who had first entered the Lok Sabha in 1962, was often quoted as saying: “I am a grassroots worker. I have risen from the ground and my roots are still firmly stuck here (in Himachal Pradesh).”

Known for his benevolence, wit and charm, Singh, known for picking errors in bureaucratic notes and redrafting them on his personal typewriter, was believed to be among the tallest leaders in the state, who successfully fought and led numerous political battles single-handedly, even when he turned octogenarian.

His former Cabinet colleagues admit that Singh, popularly known as ‘Raja Saab’ as he was born heir into the erstwhile princely state of Bushahr, pursued politics on his own terms, rather than banking on his proximity to the party high command.

“Today I am more grounded and tolerant. My commitment and zeal to work is the same as it was during my first innings (as Chief Minister), ” Singh had told IANS in December 2012, just days ahead of taking oath as the Chief Minister for the sixth time.

He had added that his vast experience — in the state and in the Central government — would help bring the state out of bankruptcy and arrest corruption. He had vowed to end bureaucratic red-tapism.

Singh had the experience of working with four Congress Prime Ministers — Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh.

Singh, who was the Chief Minister for over 21 years, believed, “Bureaucracy is like a horse. If the rider is good, it performs as per his directions. If the rider is inexperienced, the horse will get out of control and master the rider.”

His rivals had accused him of hogging all the space for the Congress leadership in the state and not allowing others to grow to their potential.

Countering such criticism, he had often asked: “Where were they when I was away from state politics for over three years?”

Singh had resigned as the Union minister for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) in June 2012 after a Shimla court order in a 23-year-old corruption case.

Less than 24 hours before his swearing in as the Chief Minister for a record sixth time, Singh had got a major reprieve as the Shimla court acquitted him and his wife Pratibha Singh, a two-time MP from Mandi, in the corruption case.

As the chief ministerial candidate in the 2017 Assembly elections, Singh had donned his battle gear after thwarting his foes within the party and campaigned aggressively almost single-handedly.

Singh was in the fray from Arki in Solan district, known as BJP’s pocket borough which he chose himself. He won the seat and entered the state Assembly for a ninth time.

His son Vikramaditya Singh too marked his maiden victory in that Assembly polls from Shimla (Rural), a seat earlier represented by his father.

During the 2017 Assembly polls, Singh was the lone target of the top BJP leadership, who had raised the issue of his being out on bail and facing corruption charges in the Delhi High Court at the time he was the Union Steel Minister in 2009-11.

But against all odds, he toured across the state seeking votes for the Congress.

Party leaders told IANS that throughout his political career, Singh had campaigned single-handedly, conducting up to 15 to 20 meetings in two to three constituencies every day.

He normally started his campaign at 9 a.m. and continued till late into the night, former Cabinet minister Harsh Mahajan told IANS.

He said Singh often held closed-door meetings with the party workers in the evening to get their feedback.

“In the last 40 years of my political career, I have never seen a politician who started his day with the public and ended it with them. His belief was: ‘Respect the people and take them seriously, not only those who have voted for the government, but all the people’, ” Mahajan said.

Singh was credited with bringing reforms in the education, social, infrastructure and power sectors.

As the Chief Minister, he often said that criticism would not deter him from going ahead with improving the standard of education in the state.

He did not mind opening a new school in the far-flung areas, even if there were just two students. In any case, the newly opened schools in the remote areas attracted a good number of girl students.

Celebrating his 87th birthday on June 23, Singh had said that he was once again ready to serve the people as his health was getting better.

Condoling the demise of the veteran Congress leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “Shri Virbhadra Singhji had a long political career, with rich administrative and legislative experience.”

Interim Congress President Sonia Gandhi said that Singh has left behind a legacy of service rendered for nearly six decades to the people of Himachal Pradesh.

“Popular for his affable and grounded nature, he remained close to people and brought about far-reaching positive changes through his administrative acumen. He was one of the tallest stalwarts of the Congress party and remained a dedicated Congress person throughout, ” she said.

A scion of the royal family, Singh’s generosity was an open secret.

His aides told IANS that every day, a number of people reached the Holly Lodge, his private residence in Jakhu Hills in Shimla, to get some monetary assistance.

“If someone didn’t carry proper documents or didn’t fall under the preview of the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund, the CM didn’t mind paying from his own pocket, ” an official said.

On an average, he gave away Rs 5, 000 to Rs 7, 000 in cash daily to the needy from his pocket, and the charity work continued even when Virbhadra Singh was not at the helm of the state, an official said.

Octogenarian Sheela Negi, who came to pay homage to Singh at his Holly Lodge residence from Rampur in Shimla district, said: “I have come to pay homage to our CM (chief minister), who was always our CM.”

The state government has declared a three-day state mourning. His mortal remains will be kept at the Holly Lodge for one day.

On Friday, Singh’s mortal remains will be kept in the Congress office here and later they will be taken to Rampur, some 120 km from the state capital, for cremation on July 10 at 3 pm.

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