The Union Minister for Science and Technology and Earth Sciences was a former two-term CM of Maharashtra, and was known as a ‘master of survival’, particularly in the coalition government that he led from October 1999 to January 2003 and November 2004 to 2008.
The end came a week after Deshmukh (67) was brought to Global Hospitals and Health City, Perumbakkam, by an air ambulance on August 6, in a critical condition. Efforts were on to find a donor for a liver transplant, and the former CM was taken on and off the ventilator before being prepared for a transplant, but to no avail.
Known as a dynamic personality in Congress circles, Deshmukh played a crucial role in the party after Sharad Pawar decided to launch his Nationalist Congress Party in June 1999. In October the same year, the Congress and NCP were sceptical on forming the government mainly due to the wafer thin majority they had in comparison to the Shiv Sena and BJP.
But Deshmukh, a die-hard Congressman, embarked on some successful political manoeuvring, and the saffron alliance could not muster support of the required MLAs to reach the magic figure required for the formation of the government.
The then Governor P C Alexander invited Deshmukh and NCP leader Chhagan Bhujbal to form the coalition government with the support of Peasants and Workers Party of India (PWP) and Janata Dal (Secular).
This was the first acid test that Deshmukh passed successfully. For him, the task was arduous as he was running the government with three partners, and NCP, the biggest partner, comprised of erstwhile Congressmen who had high stakes in rural politics.
Going by the present state of affairs where NCP is at constant loggerheads with CM Prithviraj Chavan, Deshmukh was considered a deft politician who never allowed a situation to spiral out of control.
When under pressure from coalition partners, PWP and Janata Dal, asking for a high level inquiry into the Enron power plant deal, Deshmukh handled the issue skillfully. He appointed a one-member inquiry commission under retired SC justice S P Kurdukar, much to the displeasure of NCP supremo Sharad Pawar, as the deal was passed during his tenure as CM.
Using his skills, Deshmukh offered some credit to left parties in the Enron probe but later did not offer any extension to the Kurdukar commission, nor any infrastructure required for the probe and the issue was under wraps.
There were moments of skirmish and signs of breakups with the NCP, but it never took place. Deshmukh had the dexterity to handle political crises and solutions to overcome critical junctures. He never allowed the NCP to get the better of him, neither did he use his right as a CM to displease the alliance partner. (It was rumoured that his exit in January 2003 was more due to Sharad Pawar’s unhappiness with him)
He was equally calm when PWP decided to quit the government during his first tenure and a determined bid by the then Opposition leader Narayan Rane and BJP leader Gopinath Munde to topple his government in July 2002. Not only did Deshmukh survive, but he also realised the importance of the Opposition while running the government.
It is said since then, Deshmukh successfully handled the entire Opposition in Maharashtra so skillfully that he never faced a threat from them till he had to quit following the 26/11 terror attacks. Post July 2002, the Opposition hardly tried to unseat him, and their relationship with Deshmukh was cordial. He played a crucial role to install Ashok Chavan as his successor in December 2008 when Narayan Rane, as a Congressman was eyeing the post.
Friend of Opposition
Deshmukh won many hearts from the Opposition. Right from Gopinath Munde to Bal Thackeray, his son Uddhav, and nephew Raj enjoyed an excellent rapport with him. In 1996, when he decided to fight the State Council elections as an independent candidate the saffron alliance had promised him their support.
He was suspended from the primary membership of the party for six years. But he was soon re-inducted into the Congress fold, fought 1999 Assembly elections and made a grand comeback to State politics as the Chief Minister.
Deshmukh was the only CM who was heading the government during the critical times of the 26/7 floods, farmer suicides in Vidarbha, July 2006 railway bomb blasts and 26/11-terror strike.
Despite a string of controversies, he could survive and manage everything in his own way. He was the only Congress leader at the state level who had thorough knowledge of each and every district and its political undercurrents. Congress has lost an ace leader who was its star campaigner.
As soon as he received a call by his party colleague informing him of the sad demise of Deshmukh, MPCC chief Manikrao Thakre was inconsolable. He could not control himself and started crying profusely. He had to be calmed down by his party colleagues at Gandhi Bhavan.
State announces three-day mourning period
The State Government has announced a three-day statewide mourning period from Tuesday over the demise of Union Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh. The announcement was made by Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, official sources said. Chavan also decided to cancel the Independence Day ‘At Home’ reception organized by him at the Mumbai University convocation hall on Wednesday. Governor K Sankaranarayanan too cancelled a similar reception organized by him at Pune’s Raj Bhavan after Deshmukh’s death on Tuesday. The Governor will hoist the National Flag at Council Hall in Pune as scheduled at 9 am tomorrow, a release said. Meanwhile, Republican Party of India has also called off its ‘jail bharo’ agitation of August 16 over the demand of Indu mill land for an Ambedkar memorial in Mumbai. The agitation had been called off due to Deshmukh’s death, confirmed RPI leader Arjun Dangle.