From his early days as a humble village Sarpanch of Babhalgaon in Latur to his final stint in the corridors of power in Delhi, Vilasrao Deshmukh’s meteoric political ascendancy never fails to inspire awe and wonder. In a career marred by its fair share of controversies and marked by highs and lows, Deshmukh on several occasions, managed to overcome crisis with flair, using his astute diplomatic skills with panache. And then there were the times when his luck ran out.
Stepping into the political arena young, he became an MLA at the age of 35, and rose to the seat of minister of state at 37. He soon made it to the state cabinet. In his home district of Latur, he had a worthy opponent in the form of Shivajirao Patil Nilangekar, a close confidante of the then CM Vasantdada Patil.
During his days as Minister of State for Home, he had his first brush with controversy when it was alleged that he shielded one of his close relatives from Parbhani district who had eloped with a minor girl. News related to the controversy prominently featured in Mumbai dailies, but Deshmukh scraped through with his political standing intact.
Seat of power
He determinedly held on to his seat of power till mid-1985, but as soon as Nilangekar rose to the seat of CM, he was promptly shown exit door from the cabinet. Not one to go down quietly, Deshmukh gave back as good as he got, launching a tirade over the handling of the state’s irrigation department. He soon became a close confidante and a protégé of sorts to S B Chavan.
The relationship paid off — when Nilangekar resigned from the CM’s seat, Chavan took over. Deshmukh was promptly brought back into the cabinet and was put in charge of five significant departments — revenue, transport, PWD, cooperation and parliamentary affairs. These appointments led him to acquire the standing of a de-facto CM.
His political fortunes went from strength to strength, and soon his position as a senior cabinet member was unquestionable. However, the tide turned again in 1988, when Sharad Pawar took over from S B Chavan, to demote Deshmukh to the department of agriculture. It was a time of uncertainty for Deshmukh — the anti-Pawar lobby was gathering strength under the tacit support of S B Chavan, V N Gadgil, A R Antulay and others. Knowing that Pawar could unceremoniously oust him from the cabinet, the wily Deshmukh consolidated his position by improving his rapport with his party leaders in Delhi.
In 1991, when Pawar again took over as the CM after the general elections, Deshmukh was sworn in as Industry Minister, even while the anti-Pawar lobby in the Congress worked overtime to unseat the Maratha strongman. In January 1991, under the guidance of Chavan and other senior leaders, Deshmukh — along with Sushilkumar Shinde, Ramrao Adik and N M Kamble — revolted against Pawar.
Deshmukh consolidated his position in the chaos that ensued, being given the reins of the Revenue department, which controls land pool in the state. Deshmukh was subsequently embroiled in another controversy over the allotment of a plot of land on Juhu Versova Link Road for his own Manjra Charitable Trust. This time too, he scraped through.
Ups and downs
Even as he became renowned at the state level, his fortunes at the local level suffered a heavy setback — he lost the Assembly elections from his home constituency in Latur in 1995 by a huge margin.
Unfazed by the setback, he contested the state council elections as an independent candidate in 1996. In doing so, he took as monumental risk, which didn’t pay off — he ended up losing the election in spite of support from Shiv Sena-BJP, and also losing his place in the Congress party. In 1999, he came back with a bang, winning the 1999 Assembly elections with a record margin.
At this time Sharad Pawar quit the Congress and launched the NCP, and the two parties came together to form the DF government with support from the PWP, Janata Dal and Bhartiya Republican Party-Bahujan Mahasangh. Deshmukh had surpassed all his competitors, and his mentor S B Chavan played an instrumental role in installing him as the CM in 1999.
The alliance failed to work, with PWP crying foul over the Enron power project and subsequently quitting the alliance. The shaky foundations of the alliance were almost toppled by the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance in July 2002, but yet again, Deshmukh saved himself. After a turbulent term at the helm, Deshmukh finally got marching orders in January 2003, in the face of sharp criticism over his zeal to launch son Riteish’s Bollywood career.
Deshmukh now involved himself in affairs of the party’s Central unit, consolidated his position and returned as CM after the 2004 general elections, replacing Sushilkumar Shinde. This time, he handled the Opposition with panache — with the Shiv Sena-BJP almost emerging as a friendly Opposition during Deshmukh’s second tenure.
Deshmukh kept the burgeoning department of Urban Development and Housing with him, and the city witnessed extensive construction and development, with prices of TDR and FSI shooting through the roof.
And then terror struck Mumbai on November 26, 2008. Deshmukh had to resign after sparking a public outrage when he was seen walking in to inspect the charred Taj Hotel with his son, actor Riteish, and film director Ram Gopal Verma.
It went steadily downhill from there — Deshmukh was embroiled in several more controversies that hit the state, and it was revealed that the Adarsh society got unreasonable concessions during his tenure. He put the blame squarely on the bureaucracy and perhaps owing to his warm rapport with the senior leaders in the Opposition, no audit was ever conducted to expose other scams.
Today, many of his decisions have invited strongly worded court judgments, including land allotment to film maker Subhash Ghai’s Whistling Woods International.
Deshmukh’s associates and colleagues were always struck by his razor-sharp memory — some say that he could recollect every single remark he made on a file he had evaluated years ago.
His party men relied on his oratorical skills, and his remarkable understanding of issues pertaining to his state. He will also be remembered for his great skill in handling those who mattered.
Voices > Colleagues
Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister
He was a trusted colleague and an able administrator who worked at panchayat, state and central levels with admirable dedication.
Bal Thackeray, Shiv Sena chief
It’s difficult to believe in such things, but there is no way out also. A cheerful person has made an exit. His was not an age to leave us so soon. I pay my homage on behalf of all the Shiv Sainiks and my family.
Narendra Modi, Chief Minister, Gujarat
Sad to know about the demise of Shri Vilasrao Deshmukh. May his soul rest in peace. My condolences to his family.
Anna Hazare, Social activist
It’s extremely sad news. His contribution in bringing RTI Act in Maharashtra was immense. Expected many more things from him for Maharashtra in days to come but unfortunately it was not to happen. May his soul rest in peace.
Raj Thackeray, MNS chief
A person who had thorough knowledge of each and every district of the state and its issues has left this world. I pay my respect to the departed soul on behalf of me and my partymen.
Prakash Javadekar, BJP leader
It is very sad news. He was warm-hearted and cheerful and always ready for helping (others). He had a vision for Maharashtra and was equally concerned about farmers and youngsters.
Voices > Friends
Shah Rukh Khan, Actor
I’m feeling very sorry. I have known him for years. Riteish is a close friend of mine. I spoke to him. I am very sad, it is very unexpected. He was a wonderful gentleman, apart from being the chief minister. My respects to the family.
Madhuri Dixit, Actor
Sorry to hear that Vilasrao Deshmukh has passed away. Our condolences go out to his family.
Vishal Dadlani, Music Director
RIP Shri Vilasrao Deshmukh. I wish Riteish and his family, strength and forbearance to cope with this tragic loss.
Akshay Kumar, Actor
The man who had Mumbai’s Shanghai dream is no more. RIP Vilasrao Deshmukh ji, a visionary and the father of my dear friend @Riteishd. May God give you strength.
Shabana Azmi, Actor
Vilasrao Deshmukh no more. Too young to die. As CM he gave Nivara a lot of support for our slum rehabilitation project. Condolences to the family.