Gopinath Munde had the highest accolade of them all: from a political rival senior to him in age and stature, Sharad Pawar.
Munde, Pawar often said in small gatherings, was the only other Maharashtra politician - and the only one in the opposition BJP-Shiv Sena - who knew Maharashtra as
well as he did. When this comment was relayed to Munde, he smirked and stated: "But I did not have the upbringing or political grooming that Pawar did". They shared their birthdate, December 12, but Munde used to say that it's about all that's common between them.
Munde was ambitious but his Vanjara caste made him a paraiah for the high table of state politics dominated by the Marathas in the Congress and Brahmins in the erstwhile Jan Sangh and later the BJP. The Emergency, when he was a college student, and his involvement in the anti-Emergency protests changed it all, Munde used to say. While serving time in jail, he happened to meet the late Pramod Mahajan who was leading the protests in Marathwada. From then on, Munde's political life was entwined with that of Mahajan. His personal life followed the trajectory when he married Mahajan's sister Pradnya.
Munde quickly learned the basics of what it took to be a backward - caste politician in an upper-caste polity. In 2014, nearly 37 years after his political initiation, Munde was considered the BJP's tallest leader in the state and among its more prominent ones in the country, not on the basis of his caste but for what he brought to the table: splendid organisational skills, an ability to fuse interests of different OBC groups, capability to steer through the rough waters of the BJP's alliance with the Shiv Sena, and above all, his knowledge of the state.
To this, in the mid-1990s, add the audacity to take on an established Maratha leader such as Pawar. It was Munde's daring charge, in 1994-95, about Pawar's "corrupt and criminal connections" with the underworld don Dawood Ibrahim that dealt a severe blow to the tallest leader of the Congress. He took on Pawar also for the latter's role in negotiating the over-priced and badly-negotiated power purchase agreement with the then-mighty US power company Enron.
In 1995, as the state's deputy chief minister handling the home department, Munde knew he could damage Pawar further but with a Congress government in Delhi - and Pawar as defence minister in it - he could go only this far and no more. Their intense political rivalry spilled out in the 2014 when the Pawar family pulled out all stops to defeat Munde in his bid for a second Lok Sabha term. Despite that, Munde won with a margin of 1.2 lakh votes.
Mahajan's murder, by his brother Pravin, meant a deep personal loss as well as a political setback for Munde. It was the best time to eclipse the Mahajan-Munde family hold over the BJP in Maharashtra, other senior leaders believed. Munde was sidelined. He fought back.
When he took the oath of office in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's cabinet on May 26, the outsider had become the ultimate insider, the establishment itself, an extension of the politico-business family enterprise that Munde had painstakingly built. The Munde-Mahajan second generation too is in politics; Munde's daughter, Pankaja, an MLA and Mahajan's daughter, Poonam groomed by Munde, a newly elected MP from Mumbai.
His arch rival within the BJP, Nitin Gadkari, a suave Brahmin steeped in the RSS tradition, challenged Munde on all counts but could not get the better of him on one: his popularity as a mass leader. This came from Munde's familiarity with the state, its issues and his own enviable network.
Till April 2006, Munde stayed on the sidelines as Mahajan negotiated the turbulent alliance with the Shiv Sena. In recent years, he had Uddhav Thackeray's ears. It was the older and politically better-equipped Munde who strategised and campaigned harder during the general election. The new battle between the allies to claim the chief ministership of Maharashtra after the assembly election later this year may have driven a wedge, but we will never know it now.
Back in Beed, he was seen as the region's route to join the new India. In 1991, as Indian economy liberalised, Beed was among the country's poorest districts. Twenty years later, it was still languishing at the bottom without even a rail link. Munde held out a promise.
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