In many ways, the demise of Vilasrao Deshmukh reminds one of the final moments of Hindi movie stalwart Rajkumar, who passed away in 1996 at his Worli Seaface residence after a prolonged illness.
Similar to the actor – who sought complete privacy during his illness and till the last rites were performed – Deshmukh too never made his ailment a topic of public discussion. Many, including several friends, were unaware of his condition till he was airlifted to a hospital in Chennai.
Like relatives of Rajkumar, Deshmukh’s family members too have respected his desire by not speaking about his ailment openly.
Known for his flamboyant style since his college days in Pune, Deshmukh always preferred to live life on his own terms, irrespective of good and bad phases that came and went during his four-decade long political career that began in 1972. He commenced his social work by engaging himself in distributing supplementary food (sukhda) to people affected during the worst drought (1970-73) the state has ever witnessed.
Being a fellow Laturkar, and later as a journalist, I have had the opportunity to observe him and follow his political career closely. He was an astute and alert man, and because of this Latur MLA Shivraj Patil nominated him as his successor for the assembly constituency. While Patil fought and won the Latur Lok Sabha seat in 1980, Deshmukh made it to the state assembly for the first time.
I met him on a few occasions in my school days. The younger generation from Latur was impressed by his personality and savoir-faire. His contribution towards securing the then CM AR Antulay’s sanction for a separate Latur district awed many. I remember he was the most sought after chief guest for annual day functions at colleges in and around Latur because of his deportment, charm and oratorical skills.
He remained encircled by party workers and netas in his hometown. During our college days in Pune, he was a frequent visitor to Marathwada Mitra Mandal’s hostel and the institute founded by his political mentor SB Chavan. Once he spent an entire day with the students of Marathwada region and attended a few functions as per their choice.
He had many critics for his perceived casual approach towards state issues and lack of earnestness. But Deshmukh had a penchant for championing the development of his hometown. Soon after Latur became district headquarters, it zoomed past neighbouring Osmanabad and Beed in terms of development. He was keen on turning Latur-Miraj narrow gauge railway line into a broad gauge, and amended rules of state-run Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS) to speed up the rail work and the local airstrip. During his days as CM, he saw one of his dreams come true – of connecting Latur with Mumbai by air.
Such was his fondness for his birthplace that he ensured the expansion of the local Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC), invited a few industrial houses to set up their units, and ensured establishment of regional-level offices of various departments of the government. Today, if the city of Latur aspires to become a divisional revenue control centre, it is because of his labours alone.
His circle of friends was carefully chosen. He had a passion for freewheeling chat and cracking jokes. He never cared for comments such as he did not have many supporters in politics. It was also true that until he became CM, he aligned with the anti-Sharad Pawar group headed by SB Chavan with leaders like VN Gadgil, Sudhakarrao Naik etc. He made a number of friends in Mumbai’s world of glamour and glitz.
I witnessed people virtually writing him off during the heydays of Sharad Pawar, his political foe. Once he said it was because of his identity as an opponent of Pawar that he was getting the much-needed political backing from Delhi. Though he was known as a disciple of late SB Chavan, his mannerisms, deportment resembled ex-CM AR Antulay.
Deshmukh was projected by the media as a potential candidate for the CM’s post in the late 1980s. He made many friends in the higher echelons of the media. He once stumped scribes saying that his work starts after reporters finish theirs. I witnessed his shrewdness during his first term as CM (1999-2003), when he decided to drop a few cabinet members and executed the operation post 11 at night, just to avoid media attention. And even in his last moments he kept us guessing.
— Ravikiran Deshmukh, is political editor, MiD DAY