Gopinath Munde

Grass-roots leader

Print edition : June 27, 2014

Gopinath Munde being administered the oath of office by President Pranab Mukherjee at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on May 26. Photo: ADNAN ABIDI/REUTERS

Gopinath Pandurang Munde (1949-2014) was a simple man comfortable in his rural roots. A stranger to Machiavellian political machinations, he owed his success to sheer determination.

GOPINATH MUNDE was a different sort of politician. Though he was very much a part of politics in Maharashtra and later at the Centre, there was always a sense of him being on the outside looking in, as if he too were marvelling at how he had reached such a high position. Munde was a simple man, someone who was comfortable in his rural roots.

A doer more than a long-term planner, he was not particularly known for his strategising, and whatever political scheming he did indulge in was of the garden variety with no pretensions to grand, complex, Machiavellian machinations. He left that to others and maintained the dignity of his position and fuelled his rise by hard work and dedication to his beliefs and to his party. A line from his website, in which he talks of his scholarly life in school, sums up his essential personality: “I was an average student; not very bright, not a dullard either. I was, however, determined to study....” Determination is perhaps a good word to describe Munde.

Born into a poor family of the Vanjara tribe, Munde faced all the stigmas that came with belonging to the Other Backward Classes (OBC). His father was a farmer in Nathra village of Parali tehsil in Beed district in Marathwada. He once said that he never forgot the poverty of his childhood nor the distress of a farming family that ploughed an almost perennially drought-stricken land. His parents believed in educating their children and Munde went on to graduate with a degree in commerce. He also claimed a degree in law, but this was under debate since Munde’s stated date of graduation from the law college was two years before the college was established.

In politics, Munde had a strong innings. He was a Member of the Legislative Assembly for five terms from the constituency of Renapur and Member of Parliament from Beed for two terms. He was the Leader of the Opposition from 1991 to 1995 in the State Assembly and was Deputy Chief Minister when the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine was in power in Maharashtra from 1995 to 1999. He held the portfolios of Home and Energy and he played a crucial role in the highly controversial Enron power project. He had initially opposed the project but when the Shiv Sena-BJP came to power, he headed a committee set up to review it. After months of negotiations with Enron’s then CEO Rebecca Mark (whom Munde referred to as Mark bai), he formulated an agreement that gave the green signal to the project. He rebuffed the wave of criticism that ensued by saying that the renegotiated agreement was fair and transparent.

He was sworn in as the Union Minister for Rural Development, Panchayati Raj, Drinking Water and Sanitation in the Narendra Modi government. The OBC boy from Parli had certainly come a long way.

Rural roots

Greater heights were within reach for Munde. The Maharashtra State Assembly elections are due later this year and Munde was to have spearheaded what would have been a very aggressive campaign to win back Maharashtra. The BJP’s victory in Maharashtra in the Lok Sabha elections is being wrongly attributed to Munde’s charisma and political strategising—in truth he was short on both. Without undermining Munde’s many achievements, it has to be said that he was not a great thinker or planner. His comfort levels were high in rural Maharashtra and rural politics. And anyone who wants power in rural Maharashtra has to either control or be a part of the sugar business.

This, of course, inevitably brought him up against Sharad Pawar. Like many who had feuded with Pawar, Munde too felt the Maratha strongman’s iron grip over the State.

As an OBC leader, Munde had been at loggerheads with Pawar since the 1980s. This was accelerated when Munde tried to reach into Pawar’s bastion of western Maharashtra by allying himself with others in the sugar and cooperatives business. Pawar, the master plotter, hit back by consolidating his friendship with BJP leader Nitin Gadkari, knowing that he was Munde’s rival.

The importance of these seemingly small thrusts and parries was seen when Pawar, maintaining the pressure, succeeded in creating a split in the Munde family by getting Munde’s nephew to join the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in 2012. BJP insiders have always said that Munde brought that on himself because he chose to nominate his daughter over his nephew for a seat in the 2009 Assembly elections. The split with the nephew also caused a split in Munde’s OBC base and some of the Vanjara tribesmen chose to go with his nephew. It also meant that Munde’s elder brother parted ways with him. Unskilled at this sort of politicking, it was Munde’s hard campaigning that got him victory in the Lok Sabha election.

While he was undeniably powerful in his home constituency and in certain areas of rural Maharashtra, he was no great orator. Nor was he particularly noted for his strengths in administration or framing of policy. And he never laid claim to any of these either. Much of his success has been attributed to his association with his late brother-in-law, Pramod Mahajan of the BJP, who was certainly responsible for hauling both the Maharashtra BJP as well as Munde up to their present positions. But to give Munde due credit, he did use his OBC status and change the face of the Maharashtra unit of the BJP from being one that was largely upper caste to one with strong support among the OBCs.

Munde’s role in the upcoming State elections would have been an important one. He and Gadkari would have led the assault on the State’s Congress-NCP regime. It is more than likely that they would have sheathed their swords and set aside their hostility to each other in a joint attempt to bring the BJP back to power in the State. Munde’s death will force the BJP to rethink its election strategy.

Like many of Maharashtra’s politicians, Munde was restricted by his regional appeal. But, unlike many others, Munde’s aspirations were more honest. Though he would never have turned down a stint at the Centre, he never hungered for it either, in the manner of many others.

Grounded in the teachings of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), Munde was introduced to the organisation again via Mahajan. The two had met in college, where both were part of the anti-Emergency agitations held by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. Jailed in Nashik for his participation, Munde later joked about it, saying that it was a blessing because it had enabled him to meet his wife, Pradnya, sister of Mahajan.

After his release from jail, Munde increasingly involved himself with the RSS, looking after the training in various wings and rising steadily in the ranks.

When the BJP was born in 1980 after the disintegration of the Janata Party, Munde was already steeped in local politics and was made president of the Maharashtra unit of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the BJP’s youth wing. His political beginnings were thus intertwined with the birth of the BJP and the bond remained strong until his death.

He is survived by his wife and three daughters. He died in his car en route to the airport in Delhi when it was hit by another vehicle. It is understood that Munde sustained injuries to his head. Complications arising from this, plus the fact that he was a diabetic, resulted in cardiac failure. He was 64.

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