Union rural development minister and senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader Gopinath Munde died on Tuesday apparently of multiple internal injuries suffered during a road accident in New Delhi, depriving Prime Minister Narendra Modi of a key aide just eight days after coming to office.
The body of the Union minister was taken to Mumbai and his last rites will be held in his native village of Parali-Vaijnath in Maharashtra on Wednesday.
Munde, 64, was on his way to the airport for a victory rally in Maharashtra, when his Maruti SX4 was hit by a Tata Indica.
Police told HT the driver of the Indica car voluntarily came to a police station. The Indica was registered with Hotel Imperial and the driver was identified as Gurvinder Singh, police said. A Delhi court later granted bail to Singh.
The accident took place at around 6.20am at the Prithviraj Road-Tughlak Road roundabout in the heart of the national capital and Munde was rushed to the trauma centre of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) where he was declared dead. Doctors said all efforts to resuscitate him failed and he died of cardiac arrest due to severe internal injuries.
According to the police, Munde’s car crossed the traffic signal on Prithviraj Road and was entering Safdarjung Road when the Indica hit it at a 90-degree angle. The point of impact was the Sx4’s rear-left — where Munde sat as per VIP protocol. Additional commissioner of police SBS Tyagi said a PCR call was made at 6.45am. The call was made by Singh, who was subjected to a breathalyzer test for alcohol but came out clean.
"Preliminary investigation confirms Singh was speeding and at fault. Almost two-thirds of the minister’s car had crossed the intersection when the collision occurred and sent it skidding for 31 feet," Tyagi said.
But eyewitnesses and police sources speaking off-the-record said it was Munde’s car that jumped a red light and took the Indica by surprise. They claimed it was Singh who applied the brakes and caused the skid marks in an attempt to avoid the collision. They said Singh did not try to flee but got down and even gave an injured Munde some water.
A preliminary post-mortem report said Munde may have died of multiple internal injuries. Doctors at the AIIMS Trauma Centre said Munde had sustained significant internal injuries that 'probably' led to his death.
"He had significant injuries to various internal organs that eventually triggered a heart attack. Heart attack is always the last straw and in his case was a result of severe injuries he suffered from inside in the accident," said Dr Amit Gupta, spokesperson, AIIMS.
"He had two main injuries - cervical spine fracture at the level of C1, C2 that cut the blood supply to his brain, and liver rupture," Union health minister Harsh Vardhan, who spoke to the team that performed the post-mortem, said.
"The spine fracture led to the respiratory and cardiac systems failure, and there was also excessive blood loss due to damage to the liver that had got accumulated inside the abdomen," the minister added.
AIIMS authorities handed over the preliminary post-mortem report to the investigating officer in the evening on Tuesday.
Munde was brought to the emergency department of the trauma centre at 6.30am by his personal assistant and driver, said the spokesperson Dr Gupta. He was sitting in the backseat of his car that was hit by another car at around 6.20am.
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"On his arrival at the Trauma Centre, there was no spontaneous breathing, no blood pressure, no pulse and no cardiac activity. So immediately Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) was started and continued for the next 50 minutes. Despite repeated resuscitative measures, Munde could not be revived and was declared dead at 7.20am," said Dr Gupta.
"Munde was brought to us in an extremely critical state and we did everything possible to revive him," Dr Gupta added. "Munde was hypertensive and a sugar patient. He was already taking medicines," he said.
Munde's secretary S Nair said the minister received a huge shock after the accident and apparently suffered a massive heart attack.
He is survived by his wife and three daughters - Pankaja, Pritam and Yashashri. Munde was the brother-in-law of the late BJP leader Pramod Mahajan.
He also said they are investigating whether it was the minister's vehicle which was at fault or the driver of the Indica. Television pictures of the other driver's car at a police station showed frontal damage and dents and scrapes down its left side.
Munde becomes at least the third senior politician to die in a car crash in recent times.
The Congress party's Rajesh Pilot, a former transport minister, was killed in 2000, and BJP's Sahib Singh Verma, a former labour minister, in 2007.
The country's roads are among the most dangerous in the world and New Delhi ranks near the top of cities that account for the most fatalities.
More than 2,30,000 people were killed on Indian roads in 2010, or a rate of almost 19 deaths per 1,00,000 people.
As many as 15 people died in road accidents every hour in India in 2012 with 53 more injured, the National Crime Records Bureau says.
Prime Minister Modi offered his condolences to Munde's family and hailed him as a "true leader".
"Extremely saddened & shocked by the demise of my friend & colleague Gopinath Munde ji. His demise is a major loss for the Nation & the Govt," Modi tweeted.
"Gopinath Munde ji was a true mass leader. Hailing from backward sections of society, he rose to great heights & tirelessly served people."
Modi had entrusted to Munde the crucial task of spearheading his government's battle on poverty in the countryside.
A flurry of tributes from colleagues, allies and political opponents poured in for Munde and his bereaved family.
President Pranab Mukherjee also condoled Munde's death.
Home minister Rajnath Singh tweeted his condolences and said he was a grassroots leader and known for his concern for poor people and farmers.
"Mundeji's death is an irreparable loss to the BJP and he has left a big void in Mahrashtra's political and social life," Singh posted.
Leaders cutting across party lines also expressed shock and offered their condolence to the minister's family.
"V sad to hear the demise of Sh Gopinath Munde. Heartfelt condolence to bereaved family. May his soul rest in peace," Arvind Kejriwal tweeted.
"Shocking news of demise of Gopinath Munde at his political peak. Sincere condolences to Munde family, BJP & his Government colleagues," Congress leader Shashi Tharoor posted on Twitter.
Modi called a cabinet meeting to mourn the death of Munde, whose body was to be flown to Maharashtra for a funeral on Wednesday.
From 1995 to 1999, Munde was deputy chief minister of Maharashtra. He was twice elected to the Lok Sabha, in 2009 and again last month in the landslide general election victory of the BJP.
He had served as the party's deputy leader in Parliament and was being considered as a potential chief minister of Maharashtra, where the BJP is hoping to oust its Congress rival in elections for a new assembly later this year.
Maharashtra, along with neighbouring Gujarat, Modi's home state, is one of India's engines of growth on the west coast, and was vital to his plans to restore momentum to the economy.
"It is a big blow for us," Union transport minister Nitin Gadkari, a party colleague from Maharashtra, told reporters.
As a leader of a backward community, Munde had helped the party expand its base in rural areas and among low-ranking castes, especially in the state's central region of Marathwada.
The rural development ministry is also charged with administering a land acquisition law adopted by the previous Congress government, and which has drawn mixed reactions.
While activists hailed its provision of securing upto 80% approval from the owners of land targeted for acquisition, Indian business fears the procedures will swell costs and delay investment projects.
Munde defended the law in his first comments after taking office, saying it was not aimed at industrialists.
As mark of respect to Munde, the government has also decided that the National Flag will be flown half mast in Delhi and all capitals of states and Union Territories.
Earlier, Union transport minister Nitin Gadkari told reporters Munde was on his way to the airport when the accident happened at around 6:30am. Munde, a diabetic patient, fell down from the car and asked to be taken to a hospital when his security guard helped him, Gadkari said.
Munde's body was taken to Mumbai by a special aircraft later in the evening on Tuesday. His last rites will be held in his native village of Parali-Vaijnath in Maharashtra on Wednesday.
Thousands of mourners, including senior Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, activists and common people received the casket containing the body at the Mumbai airport where security forces accorded a guard of honour.
It was taken in a motorcade to the Munde family residence at the Purna building in Worli for relatives, friends and close acquaintances to pay their last respects to the departed leader.
Senior leaders such as Vinod Tawde, Kirit Somaiya, Ramdas Athawale, Raj Purohit, Munde's daughter Pankaja Munde-Palve and others accompanied the body.
Ironically, it was the same building where Munde's brother-in-law and former BJP strongman Pramod Mahajan was gunned down by his brother Pravin eight years ago.
All along the route from Santacruz to Worli, hundreds of teary-eyed supporters who waited for several hours in the blazing sun raised slogans of "Gopinath Munde amar rahe".
Subsequently, Munde's body will be kept at the BJP state headquarters at Nariman Point, where party workers will be allowed to pay homage.
At dawn on Wednesday, the body will be taken in a special aircraft to Latur and then to his native village in Parali-Vaijnath, adjoining Beed district, a distance of 65 km from Latur.
Ironically, unaware of the tragedy awaiting him, Munde was scheduled to go to Beed Tuesday to address a series of victory rallies, his first visit to his home district after the BJP-led NDA swept to power last month.
Several thousands of people, including VIPs, top national and state leaders are expected to attend the funeral, the details of which are being finalised.
Among the callers at the Munde residence to offer their last respects were chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, ministers and leaders from various parties.
(With Agency inputs)