Union minister Gopinath Munde’s death when he was set to play a major role in the BJP’s bid to wrest power in Maharashtra from the Congress-NCP combine has created a vacuum that will be difficult to fill.
Munde’s demise comes at a time when the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — allies who tasted spectacular success in the Lok Sabha polls — are at loggerheads over the CM candidate for Maharashtra, where assembly elections are due by October.
In BJP circles, Munde, 64, was the top choice for the CM post.
The former deputy chief minister led the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to unexpected success in Maharashtra in the Lok Sabha polls. He had worked on expanding the alliance by bringing in small, yet influential leaders, as candidates. Most of them won and added to the BJP’s tally.
Munde wielded considerable clout as an OBC leader. He was often equated to a phoenix, as he rose from the ashes after his mentor and senior BJP leader Pramod Mahajan’s unnatural death in 2006.
Mahajan’s death offered Munde’s rivals an opportunity to relegate him to the lower rungs in the BJP hierarchy, which he had been commanding with unmatched power.
The BJP’s OBC face was so frustrated a couple of years ago that he wanted to quit the party.
After Mahajan’s death he had to struggle a lot. Mahajan was his friend, philosopher and guide as well as his brother-in-law (Munde’s wife is late Mahajan’s sister).
The two came from a dusty rural central Maharashtra and made a mark in the party led by urban faces.
Apart from losing his mentor, Munde also faced a situation in which the victim and the killer were his brothers-in-law. (Pramod Mahajan was shot at and fatally injured by his brother Pravin Mahajan. He succumbed to injuries 13 days later).
Munde worked his way back to the top within three years. Cut to 2014, he was in his erstwhile fiery avatar.
The BJP’s deputy leader in the Lok Sabha called the shots as the party worked to bag maximum seats from Maharashtra. He built bridges with upset allies and brought many new partners to the NDA at the state level.
A commerce and law graduate, Munde’s 36-year-old political life was not easy. He not only escaped political upheavals but also survived two aviation accidents.
When he was deputy chief minister, the glass of his plane cracked, forcing an emergency landing.
On poll campaign in 2009, his helicopter developed a serious snag and Munde asked the pilot to land on a barren field. After landing, he took a motorcycle to reach a rally.
A staunch Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh supporter, Munde fought against Emergency and was jailed for 19 months.
He tasted defeat in his first assembly battle in 1978, but bounced back two years later. He won the Renapur assembly seat and remained undefeated till 2004, after which he went to Lok Sabha in 2009 from Beed and became BJP’s deputy leader.
Munde’s high point was when he helped the BJP-Sena combine gain power in 1995. He became deputy CM and home minister. Leaders across parties appreciated Munde for being popular even after enjoying four-and-a-half years of power.
On his maiden journey to power, he single-handedly defeated mighty Sharad Pawar’s government.
Munde continued to oppose Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Pawar. He was one of the few leaders in Maharashtra who never compromised their stand on Pawar. That helped him in making good friends in the Congress. Late Vilasrao Deshmukh was among these friends.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Munde bettered his performance by helping the BJP win 23 of the 24 seats contested.
His death has shaken the BJP. “It’s an immense loss to the party and the nation. We have a lost a towering leader in Mundeji,” Nitin Gadkari, Munde’s Cabinet colleague from New Delhi, said.
Munde, the father and husband, who hardly spent quality time with family in the past, had been apparently making up for lost time of late.
He used to call up his two grandsons — one each from daughters Pankaja (MLA) and Preetam (a homemaker) — almost every morning.
Munde loved simple home cooked vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. He often ate with associates at party workers’ residences instead of visiting hotels.