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The Mahajan-Munde Journey
It was almost like the family was a beacon for controversy
Three years ago, Gopinath Munde celebrated his 61st birthday, an important occasion among Maharashtrians. He joked about his close friend from the Congress, Vilasrao Deshmukh, who was present to wish him, he cracked a few witty one-liners about the influence of his wife. He spoke of the isolation he faced within the party and outside because of his “straight-forwardness”. Towards the end of his speech, he said, “I know I am celebrating my 61st birthday...but I will not stop, I will not get tired,” prompting another round of applause. For someone who never really got over his best friend, confidant and brother-in-law Pramod Mahajan’s death in 2006, it may have seemed like the start of a new, brighter phase.
On June 3, after Munde, now 64, died in a freak car accident in New Delhi, Shiv Sena’s Harshal Pradhan was still in shock and finding it hard to believe. One thing he couldn’t get over was a meeting with him a few weeks ago. “I don’t know why he said this was his last election. I said things were getting better and he shouldn’t be saying such things. He just said he was easily tired nowadays.” He had survived three accidents, one of which requiring a neck surgery to get him back on his feet. Not one to be cowed down by anyone or anything, be it accidents or political rivals, Munde was known for taking issues head-on and coming out with his head held high. But not this time. “This number, 3, is the worst for the family. Pramodji also died on May 3. Pravin Mahajan also succumbed on a 3rd. And now this,” says a party worker.
Munde, second son of a poor farmer from Nathra village, Beed district, often credited Pramod Mahajan for his political career, which he came into “by accident”. Unfortunately, he was to bear witness to several catastrophic incidents in the Mahajan family. Pramod Mahajan, once touted as a PM-probable in the NDA campaign, was shot by his younger brother Pravin in 2006. It was Munde, who lived in the same building, who rushed him to hospital, holding on to Mahajan as he bled profusely and reportedly asked, “What sin did I commit to deserve this?” Pramod Mahajan battled for his life for 13 days before succumbing on May 3, 2006.
Munde paved the way for Mahajan’s daughter Poonam to contest the Lok Sabha elections this time. Earlier, his own daughter Pankaja had entered the state government as an MLA from Parali, his constituency. Both daughters seemed set to follow their fathers’ paths at the state and national level.
Elected with a margin of one lakh-plus votes to the LS this year, he was given the important rural development ministry in the cabinet. After the demise of his good friend Vilasrao Deshmukh and Pramod Mahajan, he was the only “people’s leader” or “mass leader” from Marathwada who could create an impact at the state as well as national level. Nitin Gadkari, now an MP from Nagpur, with whom he shared a hot-and-cold relationship, is now the only senior leader left from Maharashtra in the BJP.
Indeed, Munde came with a unique blend for the party. He was from the Vanjara community, a backward caste. He knew Maharashtra and the pulse of the people, especially the farmers and landless labourers. He was courageous enough to take on any bigwig, even the NCP’s Sharad Pawar and that when he was the Congress CM in 1994. At the same time, he was convivial enough to maintain cordial ties with most parties, big or small. He’s been credited for the grand alliance the BJP-Sena struck with the RPI(A), Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana and Rashtriya Samaj Paksha for this election. And if anyone could have convinced Shiv Sena boss Uddhav Thackeray to relent from his chief ministerial ambitions, it would have been Munde. He was confident of their assembly win.
This confidence was not only about the Modi wave or anti-incumbency. It also came from his past campaigns, like back in 1994-95 when he travelled to every corner of the state as part of a ‘sangharsh yatra’ against the then Congress government and its alleged corrupt practices. It landed him a deputy chief ministership later. He is also credited with standing firm behind the Mumbai police in their ‘encounter wars’ on the organised crime syndicates. The stringent MCOCA (Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act) also came into being during his tenure as state home minister.
Strangely, for a man known to have a handle on agrarian issues like Pawar, he wasn’t able to transform Beed into Baramati, either due to lack of support from the Centre or political will. One of the most backward districts in the state, Beed even today battles challenges like drought, a migrant population working as sugarcane labourers for 4-6 months a year and an abysmal female child ratio.
Some experts say this was his chance to make a solid difference. “He had become the rural affairs minister. He knew what was ailing the farmers in Marathwada. He could have done something,” says a farmer from the region.
It may be too early to talk about the impact of his death on state politics or the assembly polls. Sympathy vote apart, the party will find it hard to replace Munde, who was a face of backward castes in a party that has a Brahminical or upper-caste image. Munde was also a negotiator and a warm link among constantly bickering alliance partners. Warring cousins, Raj and Uddhav Thackeray, both crucial to state politics, have already declared their ambitions.
At his funeral, the sight of the eldest of his three daughters performing the last rites is going to be etched in the state’s collective memory for long. There’s even some conspiracy talk. RPI leader Ramdas Athavale has demanded a CBI probe into the accident. So have state BJP leaders like Avadhut Wagh. In a tweet, he said, “Mahajan first, then Munde. Is it not a conspiracy to finish Mahajan-Munde family from politics? How such 2 big leaders die unnatural death.” (sic)
And while that question may cloud everyone’s mind right now, there’s one thing everyone is sure about. In the words of Maharashtra BJP chief Devendra Fadnavis, “God has not been kind to Gopinathji.” Or to the family.