The deputy leader of India's opposition Congress party, Madhavrao Scindia died along with four journalists and three others when his private plane crashed amid heavy rain in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) yesterday.

Scindia, 56, was on his way to address a party rally at Kanpur ahead of the upcoming state assembly polls in UP when the chartered 10-seater Cessna C-90 aircraft caught fire in mid-air and crashed near Mainpuri while attempting an emergency landing amidst unseasonal heavy rains. All eight occupants of the aircraft died in the accident.

Scion of the erstwhile royal family of Gwalior, Scindia represented the young and dynamic face of the Congress party which was in shock yesterday. A police official said the Cessna's single engine caught fire and the plane plunged into a paddy field. The aircraft broke into two, with one of the pieces submerged under water.

The Congress' Italian born party president Sonia Gandhi, relatively inexperienced was said to depend heavily on Scindia to run the party and act as leader of opposition in the lower house, the Lok Sabha.

"It is a very unfortunate incident. A young and dynamic face of the party has been lost," senior Congress official Ambica Soni said.

In New Delhi, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi, and other leading Indian politicians rushed to Scindia's residence to offer condolences to his widow and two children.

Stunned Congress party leaders, who gathered at his residence on hearing about the tragic accident, openly acknowledged that the party had been dealt a body blow with his death.

Scindia who was an immensely successful minister in previous Congress governments, where he ran the railways and civil aviation ministries, is survived by his wife, a daughter and a son.

A special airforce plane has been rushed to Agra to bring back the dead. The bodies are expected to be brought by road via Agra from the inaccessible crash site.

"The bodies are charred badly. We are trying to take the bodies to the road, which is about 1.5 km from the site," high-ranking police official A.K. Mitra said.

Scindia is expected to be cremated tomorrow in the former princely state of Gwalior, where he is revered. Family sources said a final decision would only be taken after Scindia's son Jyotiraditya, who was in Mumbai, arrives in New Delhi.