Vilasrao Deshmukh was an affable man, always with a smile. When he spoke in public, it was extempore and he had the knack of carrying the house with him. If the audience did not laugh at least thrice in the course of a speech, then it was someone else speaking. Speaking without a prepared text allowed him the freedom to cover the sharp, biting observations with chocolate fudge.
He covered quite some distance as a politician – from the sarpanch of Bhabalgaon, a village in Latur, to the chief minister of Maharashtra to a senior minister manning important portfolios at the Centre. It was a distance far bigger than the his farmland at Latur, which he oversaw riding horseback.
He had panache. He knew how to dress well much before the 24×7 news television forced many to rush to designers. His suavity was remarkable. But he could spring nasty surprises too, such as quitting the Congress, seeking support of the Shiv Sena to re-enter active politics as a Legislative Council member.
Deshmukh himself was surprised once. After the Congress, and Nationalist Congress Party, fighting separately, routed the Shiv Sena and the BJP, he scarcely had thought that a party which bore “such ill-will” – his own words – against Mrs Sonia Gandhi would do business with her party. They became coalition partners but much before the alliance was formed he was all set to have “an easy time” – his own words – as Leader of Opposition.
However, the hair-splitting bargain between the two parties suddenly catapulted him into the chief minister’s chair on the sixth floor of Mantralaya, he could not believe his good fortune. “I thought the Congress had been done for because the NCP had shown indications – all false, of course, as it turned out, just to coerce the Congress – that it would sup with the Shiv Sena.
Sushil Kumar Shinde, the chief minister hopeful then, did not grudge him this for they were closest of friends. If not on tours, either would be seen in the other’s ante-rooms in Mantralaya, shooting the breeze and having the few friends around guffaw loudly enough to pierce through the door while others waited to meet them. Both had an uncanny ability: say a lot of words but give away little, even an assurance, with a smile. They could chortle at the drop of a humourous word.
When the High Command suddenly asked Shinde to take over from Deshmukh in 2003, the latter did not allow a muscle to twitch in regret for, as the world knew, they were best of friends. But when Shinde led the party in elections to sufficiently marshal a fair size to continue the Congress-NCP alliance, Deshmukh was again surprised. He, not Shinde, was offered the crown.
That, however, was his undoing. He assumed that surprises, not shocks, were his due and that politics thenceforth was easy. He slackened a bit, indeed, and when the city was inundated in July 26, 2006, crippling it, scaring the people for a few years thereafter if it even drizzled a bit, he stayed put in his official bungalow. It did not get him any laurels at all though he tried to bluster his way through the media’s questions.
Bomb blasts in the city did not easily move him, till of course, Ajmal Kasab and his Pakistani compatriots swooped on the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, The Taj Hotel and the Oberoi. His first outing thereafter cost him his job: he took along with him his son, Ritiesh Deshmukh and director-producer Ram Gopal Varma to the sites, conducting the first high-level terror tour. That is one thing he must have regretted a lot.
When Mrs Sonia Gandhi visited Mumbai, it was pointed out to her that there were more posters of the actor-son adorning billboards on lampposts – he was promoting his debut movie Tujhe Meri Kasam — than hers. That kind of pettiness unsettled Vilasrao. It hurt him more that it came from within the Congress, to which he had returned.
Though this son, Riteish, moved to motion pictures, preparing for it by training at Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, New York and then doing comic roles, the other, Amit has been long known to be his political successor. He ran his father’s institutions – colleges, cooperatives, and Latur as a constituency even, and at one time, a small newspaper local to Latur but which sought and secured cheap government land in Navi Mumbai – and is now in the legislature.
Vilasrao Deshmukh’s one strength was he worked through virtually all portfolios as a minister, starting as a minister of state for Home. He had the benign support of Shankarrao Chavan, and is known as his manasputra - the heir to the former’s values. The trust of the mentor, as it turned out later, was misplaced. He is supposed to have had Marathwada under his thumb. Much like Sharad Pawar is supposed to have Maharashtra under his thumb.