Vilasrao Deshmukh: Politician who could have been movie star

In the early 1960s, a young and handsome student in Pune University harboured a secret ambition: to become a star in Bollywood. Over the years, the Bollywood dreams of Vilasrao Dagadoji Deshmukh crumbled although he resembled an upcoming star of those times, Shatrughan Sinha, and whose dialogue delivery he imitated to regale friends.

Instead, Deshmukh became a rising star in politics, starting with his native Latur district and going on to star on the national stage. The double graduate-cum-lawyer became one of the youngest sarpanches at age 29 in 1974.

He had to battle huge odds but there was no looking back after that. A Congress loyalist, he went on to become Maharashtra chief minister twice and union minister too.

A young Vilasrao Deshmukh. Pic/Ajay Borade-Patil

"I have achieved all this despite powerful political opponents," Deshmukh once told this writer, naming Sharad Pawar, soon after he was sworn-in the second time as the Maharashtra chief minister in 2004.

The kind of hate-hate relationship Deshmukh-Pawar had all these years -- both ambitious Marathas, hailing from the backward Marathwada and the prosperous western Maharashtra respectively - is hardly a secret.

Winning all elections from 1980, barring in the 1995 assembly polls owing to suspected sabotage by party bigwigs, Deshmukh started his ministerial stint from 1982 and held all important portfolios.

Despite having been written off after his defeat in 1995, when the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance swept to power, Deshmukh made a sensational comeback in 1999 winning with the highest margin in the state.

When Sharad Pawar quit the Congress to form the Nationalist Congress Party, the party was desperate for a strong leader as the next chief minister. The mantle fell on Deshmukh who ruled Maharashtra from 1999 to 2003.

Even after he was moved to national politics as Congress general secretary, Deshmukh's heart beat only for his home state. The Latur-born wanted to move back to Mumbai.

The opportunity came in 2004 when he bounced back as chief minister. He held the reins till he resigned following the 2008 Mumbai terror attack by Pakistani terrorists.

It was as culture minister that Deshmukh acquired a love for the fine arts, music, dance, movies and drama, which remained his passion till the end.

He was once asked why so many Bollywood personalities crowded his office and residence. Deshmukh replied: "Most of them want land somewhere or the other. If their case is genuine, the government considers it."

A few years later, his name was dragged into a land allotment row involving filmmaker Subhash Ghai.

Minister of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises Vilasrao Deshmukh as he assumes charge at his office in New Delhi in 2009. Pic/Subhash Barolia 

During his tenure as chief minister, among the longest by a Congress leader, Deshmukh always ensured a couple of important cultural items on his official menu.

Though he was never identified as a member of any group within the Congress, he was great friends with the late Madhavrao Scindia, whom he considered as among his mentors.

When Scindia was killed in a plane crash, Deshmukh was at the Hyderabad airport lounge. As he got the news, he broke down.

During the flight back home in a small aircraft, he recounted several treasured encounters he had with Scindia.

Over the years, Deshmukh had his share of political controversies, land scams and accusations of misusing his position. In 2009, as the Congress returned to power again nationally, he became a part of the Manmohan Singh government.

According to his close friends, it was last year that his illness and its implications were detected. He started taking precautions, including lighter assignments.

A matter of pride for him was his son Riteish, who fulfilled his dream of becoming a Bollywood star and later married Genelia D'Souza, an upcoming actress.

His friends hail Deshmukh for his contribution in promoting arts and culture, the co-operative movement, education and strengthening the administration especially in rural areas.

He would always say that he wanted to make Maharashtra the numero uno state in India, and dreamt of making Mumbai a Shanghai.

The 67-year-old died in a Chennai hospital Tuesday... that dream forever incomplete.  

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