With his long innings in Maharashtra politics which began from the lowest rungs as a village sarpanch, Vilasrao Deshmukh scored brilliantly as a career politician from Maharashtra.
Hailing from Latur district, he emerged as the voice of the backward Marathwada region and as the political heir to the tallest leader from that region- Shankarrao Chavan. Inspite of all his strengths, Vilasrao’s biggest failure was his inability to use his immense political experience and acumen to pursue bold and innovative policies and programmes for Maharashtra.
As such, he sadly ranks among those politicians who, despite their immense capability, never realised full potential as they preferred to play safe and take a status-quoist approach in politics. Did Vilasrao voluntarily adopt such a stance to avoid confrontations in politics? Or was he constrained from doing so by the dominance of the sugar barons from western Maharashtra in state politics? Incidentally, as a Congress loyalist, Vilasrao had an uneasy relationship with Maharashtra’s most dominant politician, Sharad Pawar, with whom he had sparred in the past and was also extremely accommodative much to the dislike of the Congress.
Vilasrao’s four decades in politics that began in 1974 saw him gain considerable experience at every level in the system- be it the village Panchayat, the Zilla Parishad, the state government where he was chief minister for two separate terms and as a minister in the central government. Through all this, he handled a diverse range of portfolios- be it as important as the Home Department, Revenue and Industries or as secondary as animal husbandry and tourism. At the Centre, he was minister for heavy industries, rural development and panchayati raj, before moving on to science and technology and earth sciences.
In most of his portfolios, whether at the state or the Centre, Vilasrao's ministerial initiatives were never as newsy as say those of his colleagues such as Jairam Ramesh or Kapil Sibal. In this, he lost the opportunity to make a mark that he was capable of.
Not surprisingly, Vilasrao’s demeanor was always in tune with please-all approach in politics: His biggest strength was also his biggest weakness: He always had a pleasant, disarming personality, of a leader-administrator who was capable and could carry everyone along. It was because of this trait that he was chosen by the Congress high command to negotiate with the anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare at the height of the Jan Lokpal agitation in Delhi in August 2011.
In 1999 Vilasrao was perceived as someone stronger than the other prominent Congressman from Maharashtra- Sushilkumar Shinde- who would not succumb to pressure from Sharad Pawar who had exited the Congress to form the NCP. Added to this was his long political experience, mass base and a firm understanding of politics in Maharashtra, all of which led to his being chosen as the state’s chief minister in his first term during 1999 to 2003.
But later, it was the same Vilasrao, as chief minister, who participated in the extraordinary meeting of state bureaucrats with Sharad Pawar at Lavasa in Pune where the controversial township project was accorded the Planning Authority status. In April 2012, the Comptroller and Auditor General's (CAG) report questioned the decision to grant the special planning authority status to Lavasa, observing that “Lavasa Corporation Limited is a private company registered under the Companies Act, and whether the company can be given the status of special planning authority is a questionable fact.”
In April 2012, he was pulled up by the Supreme Court for allotting 21 acres to filmmaker Subhash Ghai's Whistling Woods academy in Goregaon, Mumbai. His easy-going approach cost him his chief ministership after the famous tour to the Taj Hotel with filmmaker Ram Gopal Verma in the wake of the 26/11 terror strike.
It was missteps such as these that sadly kept Vilasrao trapped in mediocrity. He seemed to shy away from breaking new paths and making a lasting impression through his policy initiatives. The party was what mattered to him first and foremost and he will be remembered primarily for his contribution to strengthening the Congress in Maharashtra.