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Vilasrao Deshmukh knew how to handle Pawar

Vilasrao Deshmukh was that rare alliance leader who managed to hear all sides and keep everyone happy in his eight years as chief minister.

mumbai Updated: Aug 14, 2012 23:03 IST
Shailesh Gaikwad
Shailesh Gaikwad
Hindustan Times

Three weeks ago, when Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar threatened to walk out of his party's 12-year-old alliance with the Congress in Maharashtra, one of his key complaints was that chief minister Prithviraj Chavan was creating trouble for his partymen in Maharashtra.

As the Congress-NCP alliance trembled, the ministers who stood to lose power began to miss a troubleshooter who had steered the government clear of such pitfalls for eight years - Vilasrao Deshmukh.

This was ironic, considering the years that Pawar and Deshmukh spent years tussling for power in the state Congress.

In the late 1980s, as Pawar returned to the Congress fold by merging his Congress (S) and became chief minister, Deshmukh and Sushilkumar Shinde led a revolt. They wanted then Congress president Rajiv Gandhi to dethrone Pawar.

The revolt fizzled out and Pawar remained where he was. The Pawar-Deshmukh enmity continued.

In fact, Deshmukh was the only minister in Pawar's cabinet who opposed the controversial deal with Enron for a power plant in the Konkan.

The Pawar camp took revenge by helping Shivajirao Kavhekar, a Janata Dal leader, defeat Deshmukh in his Latur constituency in the 1995 assembly election.

A dejected Deshmukh tried to enter the Legislature by contesting elections to the upper house, but lost there too and was forced to quit the party.

By 1998, however, Deshmukh was back in the party fold and was even elected leader of the Congress legislature party. Ironically, it was Pawar's party that supported his nomination as chief minister.

The initial years of that first alliance were rocky, but Deshmukh soon mastered the art of keeping everyone happy.

"Vilasrao knew how to get things done without confronting or upsetting alliance partners," says Congress leader Ratnakar Mahajan, executive chairman of the state planning board during Deshmukh's first term as CM.

"Every time there were problems, he would sort them out skillfully."

Party colleagues remember how skillfully Deshmukh handled Pawar and his men too.

"Among all the Congress chief ministers since 1999, Deshmukh and Shinde were the most acceptable to us," says an NCP minister.

"With Deshmukh, the key was his pragmatic approach. He never took a moralistic position, which is why he didn't have too many enemies among his allies or within the party."

Deshmukh also maintained good relations with second-rung leaders of the NCP. Several NCP ministers had a personal rapport with him.

"It was his skill that he never allowed bitterness to seep into his political decisions or moves," says Kapil Patil, a Lok Bharati Party legislator and friend of Deshmukh.

"That was why even Pawar did not mind him serving for eight years as chief minister of the alliance government."

First Published: Aug 14, 2012 23:00 IST