Sitting in the BJP state headquarters in 1995, I got my first measure of Gopinath Munde. He had already emerged as a firebrand opposition leader in the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly, taking on the mightiest chief minister of those days, Sharad Pawar. It was his campaign against the Congress, then led by Pawar in Maharashtra, which was said to have weakened that party to such an extent that it led to the first (and so far sole) Shiv Sena-BJP government in the state.
But just before those elections, as the BJP functionaries chalked up a campaign schedule and assigned speakers to each constituency, Munde almost jumped out of his shoes when he discovered that he was expected to host Sadhvi Rithambara in his assembly constituency of Renapur. Munde had led a BJP delegation to Ayodhya from Maharashtra in December 1992, so I was startled now to hear him say with some considerable force, "I do not want her anywhere near my constituency. I have a lot of Muslim voters who are committed to me. She will say all sorts of things that will alienate them and I will then lose the elections. Keep her away," he stressed the last three words emphatically.
Later, he told me, "I do not believe in making differences between various communities. I believe in taking everyone along."
And he did succeed in holding all groups in the BJP’s fold even at the height of the party’s Hindutva agenda in the 1990s. I realised what Munde was really all about when he later admitted publicly that he was in the BJP essentially because his brother-in-law Pramod Mahajan, an old friend whose sister he had married, was in that party. "If Pramodji had joined the Congress, I would have too," he said.
But though he may have started out as Mahajan’s camp follower, Munde assiduously built up a constituency for himself, that was not unlike the Congress’ canvas, among the Dalits, Muslims, backward classes and others that were not the usual votaries of the BJP. While Mahajan was always the master strategist, it was Munde who gathered the votes. Munde did go through a bad patch after Mahajan’s death with alienation from the upper caste factions within his party but it is a tribute to his indispensability to the state BJP that despite internecine wars, Munde continued to lead his party’s campaign through various elections and succeeded in gaining the upper hand over the Shiv Sena, despite Bal Thackeray being the USP of the alliance, in the 2009 assembly elections. For the first time in their association, the BJP secured the leadership of the alliance and the party was hoping to repeat the feat in October, even building up to press the Shiv Sena to part with a few more seats to the BJP to make that doubly possible. Munde would clearly have been the chief ministerial candidate, despite his avowal that the decision would be left to the ‘mahayuti’ leaders — there are two more parties in this alliance. An ungainly battle had already broken out between the Sena and the BJP over the issue with the former declaring Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray as their candidate. But after Bal Thackeray, the Sena is left with no mettle and Munde was clearly the front-runner.
Ahead of the advent of Narendra Modi, it was Munde who had succeeded in wooing large sections of not just Dalits and OBCs but also farmers and other such groups to the BJP’s fold, posing a direct challenge even to Pawar, a self-professed messiah of the rural masses, and making inroads into the Congress and the NCP’s institutional bases like sugar factories and co-operative banks. Sadly after the passing away of Vilasrao Deshmukh, who also was rural development minister in UPA 2, Maharashtra too has been left without a mass leader of this generation. Though Munde was at times taunted as the BJP’s rare dynast — daughter, niece, nephew and brother all holding various offices — he himself was a true grassroots leader. His absence will be deeply felt by both Maharashtra and the BJP.