Vilasrao Deshmukh … Rest in Peace

During his first term as chief minister of Maharashtra, I had once quizzed Vilasrao Deshmukh about the general feeling of critics that his was a lack-lustre government that was really incapable of doing anything significant for the people.

Deshmukh, usually a cheerful persona, always with a smile that rarely slipped, reacted with a flash of anger that darkened his face. “Which people and which critics?” he asked rather contemptuously. “I am not bothered about the armchair critics sitting in their posh Peddar Road drawing rooms and calling my government non-functioning just because I have not offered them tax subsidies on mobile phones or some such equally frivolous demand. Where it matters the people know exactly what my government is doing.”

“Where does it matter?” I asked.

“In the rural areas. You will see. We will win the elections again. Meanwhile those Peddar Rad critics would still be sitting in their armchairs and would not even move to cast a vote. It is only those in the slums and villages who bother to vote. Their lives are made better by us and they know the difference.”

Having just returned from Deshmukh’s funeral in Latur, I must say that so many years later I have finally understood – rather fully – what he had meant that time. In one of the backward areas of the state of Maharashtra to which development has come only recently – it got a rail connection just in 2008; an air link around the same time – the amount of mourners who turned up for one last sight of their beloved reader was unbelievable. The authorities had expected about a lakh, instead the mourners were ten times that number, blocking all roads leading to his village of Babhalgaon, causing a virtual stampede and minor altercations with cops who just could not keep them under control. Deshmukh’s own hearse could move just three kms in two hours as people stopped it every second to offer flowers and a personal tribute. Every female eye was moist with unchecked tears; every male eye was pained and sad. When, on an otherwise sunny day, it rained briefly just as his bier was being lowered to the pyre, a man sitting beside me said, “Look even the Gods are weeping. Even they do not want him to depart this earth.”

I was frankly startled. I have always known Deshmukh’s importance to the Congress in Maharashtra and he was the only chief minister who could run a coalition government for eight years without annoying allies while, at the same time, not ceding even an inch of the ground away from his own party. But I had not expected that the people of the backward Marathwada region had been according him a God-like status all this while.

Later, when I asked some mourners why this should be so, their answers were very revealing – and I told myself I should have known. I have covered practically every inch of Maharashtra as a journalist on various stories – droughts, development, earthquakes (in Latur itself, in fact), riots, conflicts, elections, et al. And Latur was always the most difficult place to travel to, except of late (since 2008).

For those who could afford it, the shortest and the easiest way was to fly from Bombay to Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh and then motor it down to Latur. The poorer people had to take the narrow gauge to the nearest broad guage station or bus it to Solapur and then take the single rail line down to the nearest junction and then to other parts of the country. Under those circumstances, it was not likely that the people could very break out of their backwardness and catch up with the rest of the country for decades.

However, starting as a sarpanch at the age of 25 (for more on his life and times, read Rahul Shinghavi, who calls him a political superhero, here.  Deshmukh worked outwards and integrated backwards – after becoming an MLA, he fought hard to bring basic facilities to his constituency and then used Maharashtra’s employment guarantee scheme (which was the precursor to the union government’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, originated by then chief minister Vasdantdada Patil, to “develop” Latur in its own isolation. Accordingly, roads were built and connected to the highways, even if there was no traffic into the district and, remarkably, an airport was constructed in these backwaters town decades before the first flight was inaugurated around 2008.

“At some point of time they will have to open up Latur. When they do begin to think about it, I would have an airport and other links ready for use. Infrastructure development never goes waste. In the meantime, people are also kept in a state of constant employment,” he had once told reporters.

But he also focused on bringing the best educational institutions to his district: in a few years the state education board was posting the best results from Latur and the “Latur pattern’’ became much talked about all over Maharashtra. From what I learnt out of my talk with the villagers, practically every home now has at least one earning member and they are also well versed in English – that has opened up opportunities for them all outside the district and many have got well paying jobs in Bombay and elsewhere in the country.

Deshmukh did not boast about this much but what he has done for his home district is almost akin to Sharad Pawar’s work in his own hometown of Baramati – Pawar always wins from that constituency no matter which party he contests from. “Five years of hard work and only five minutes of campaign,” has been Pawar’s boast through the years for what he has to show to the people.

That’s why, perhaps, Pawar always considered Deshmukh a rival – when both were in the Congress and even after Pawar split the Congress to form the Nationalist Congress Party. In 1999, he had hated the thought of allying with the Congress with Deshmukh at the head of the government. But in subsequent years Vilasrao proved he could take everyone along without ruffling too many feathers.

He was also chiefly responsible for cutting the NCP’s ambitions down to size in 2009 without quite giving Pawar room for complaint. And as he grew larger than life and somewhat indispensable to the Congress in Maharashtra, I could see that he deliberately toned down his image in order not to seem challenging the authority of his party high command. To that extent, Deshmukh was a cent per cent loyalist: before he had to quit as chief minister in 2008 following the 26/11 terrorist attacks, he was greatly worried about how he would define a role for his son Amit in active politics – since he was already chef minister, he was not sure he could swing a ticket for his son to the same state assembly. Of course, former Goa chief minister Pratapsinh Rane’s way out of a similar situation just did not occur to him – Rane, as a sitting CM, had encouraged his son to contest as a rebel from a constituency that Vishwajit Rane had been developing for years. Vishwajit’s success in getting two or three Congressmen elected from difficult neighbouring constituencies bought the silence of the party high command and while his father was made Speaker of the assembly in the next House, the son ended up as a minister in the same government. But that was not Vilasrao’s way out and, despite being Maharashtra’s great big hope every time the state went to polls, he would, unlike Pawar, play no games with his party high command doing only as he was told.

When I asked him why, he said, “No one will give me credit for intervening if and when we do win the elections. But if we lose, even though we were losing it anyway, I will surely be blamed for interfering.” But when he was entrusted with a charge – like persuading Anna Hazare to call off his fast when all other means had failed last August– he almost always delivered the results.

From a journalist’s point of view, Deshmukh was the ideal source – always sharing some information without giving any of the details away and never leaving the reporter without a headline to go by. This quality extended even to helping out rival politicians – he lent an ear to all, at one time leading both Nitin Gadkari and Gopinath Munde to fall back upon him to sort out their own quarrels with each other.

No wonder, then, that even Maharshtra Navnirman Sena president Raj Thackeray, apart from Gadkari and BJP spokesperson Prakash jJavdekar were present at his funeral (nearly 30 aircraft were parkd at Latur airport on the day and VIP cars had blocked the highway for miles on the highway to Latur) and they all had a similar refrain: Deshmukh helped all people without making any difference even among the opposition parties. To that I might add, while rendering his help he never compromised his own party’s interests at any time.

That is why the Congress, which never really valued him as much as he should have been, has suffered a great loss in his passing. They have no one quite of Deshmukh’s calibre to see them through the next elections and I am sure they will feel the pinch.

Deshmukh was a little unhappy at the manner in which he had been treated towards the end, though he would not utter a word in public about it. He was also upset at the wrongful interpretation of his administrative decisions which could have been errors of judgment but as he told me only three weeks before his death, certainly could not be labeled as corruption. He had a clean career throughout and these charges pained him immensely.

When I left his home the Saturday before he was admitted to Bombay’s Breach Candy hospital, before being flown to Chennai a week later, I told him I would be seeing him again very soon. He was rather thin but he denied that he was suffering from anything more than just a `stomach problem’ that had reduced him to living on a strict diet. I left him cheery, smiling, laughing in jolly fashion as usual and meeting a lot of supporters and party workers, including those from the NCP who came seeking advice. So I did not think that that was the last time ever that I would ever be seeing Vilasrao Deshmukh.

I only hope he is at peace wherever he might now be. With the same cheery countenance even when he was so close to death!

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