He may be 64, but he’s showing no signs of slowing down.
With six days to go before the October 13 Assembly election, Vilasrao Deshmukh, former chief minister and Union Heavy Industries minister, has addressed over 55 meetings across the state since September 29 — an average of seven rallies per day.
When it rains too hard for the choppers to fly, he gets into a car, anything to avoid cancelling. It’s why he’s known as the pre-poll Congress workhorse, and he’s proud of it.
“I try to make the most of my time,” he says. “I addressed eight rallies in Vidarbha on Monday. I didn’t even have lunch.” Deshmukh likes to know about the man he’s endorsing before he gets to his constituency.
Local issues don’t need much research, since he’s been in the state Cabinet since 1982 (barring one term) before moving on to the Centre.
Deshmukh spent most of Tuesday at meetings and rallies in Wardha for second-generation Congress members like Shekhar Shende (33), Amar Kale (36), Yashomati Thakur (38) and Rajendra Shekhwat (42).
“These kids are promising politicians,” he says. “They have worked their way up the ladder, and I want to help them get ahead.”
Is seven rallies a day pushing it, though? “Being the second-longest-serving CM of the state, I enjoy the authority that gives me and the fact that I can influence people’s opinions,” he says. “People listen to me carefully because they know I’m not a novice, and they believe me because I admit our mistakes.”
Those ‘mistakes’ would include failing to make a dent in the state’s power shortfall over the last 10 years. Deshmukh sighs. “When people want to know about power scenario, I admit we did make some mistakes, but I convince them that the state will be in a power situation by 2012,” he says.
“I have invited Deshmukh thrice before and experience proves that the people like him,” says two-time MLA Amar Kale, gesturing to a crowd of 10,000 waiting to hear the former CM speak.
A powerful speaker, Deshmukh takes pride in connecting with his audiences instantly, and taking digs at the Opposition and at party rebels “without using foul language”.
After the speech, it’s almost time for his next rally. But Deshmukh does have time for a quick lunch. The fare is simple — rotis, vegetable, dal (pulses), rice and buttermilk made by Kale’s wife and served at his modest residence.
“This is my third lunch at your home and I must say you haven’t disappointed me,” Deshmukh tells Kale’s wife, as she pushes one more homemade gulab jamun on him.
Later, some schoolchildren line up for an autograph. “Arrey wah,” Deshmukh grins, peering over his sunglasses. “You want my autograph? I thought all the fans were for [son and Bollywood actor] Ritesh.”