Former Union minister and Mumbai Congress chief for the past 22 years, Murli Deora, died in the early hours of Monday after a prolonged battle with cancer. He was 77.
That the entire Gandhi family attended the funeral of one of Mumbai’s most prominent politicians and Congressmen is a sign of the heft that Deora had in the party, which he helped build in the state, especially in Mumbai.
Almost all senior AICC leaders arrived for the last rites in Mumbai: Sonia Gandhi accompanied by Rahul, Priyanka and Robert Vadra, Motilal Vora, Ahmed Patel, Mohan Prakash, Anand Sharma, Sanjay Nirupam and MPCC chief Manikrao Thakre, among others. Leaders from other parties who came for the funeral included Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, Cabinet ministers Vinod Tawde, Prakash Mehta and Union Minister of State Piyush Goyal. Also present were Mukesh and Anil Ambani, Congress legislators Naseem Khan, Varsha Gaikwad, Sanjay Dutt and former legislators Krishna Hegde and Kripashankar Singh.
Fadnavis said, “Deora’s political innings also included the social aspects which would always be remembered. His anti-tobacco campaign to create health awareness was very laudable.”
Deora was the party’s link to India’s business community from the early, hesitant days of liberalisation in the 1980s as well as a bridge to other political parties. Known for his proximity to the Gandhi family right from the days of Indira Gandhi, he went on to become a close confidant of Rajiv Gandhi and later Sonia. In fact, Deora is said to have introduced Rajiv to the World Economic Forum in Davos. His contacts in the international business and political community were considered a major asset for the young man who would later become prime minister.
Away from the political world, Deora was a keen bridge player, making time to play every weekend at his home. Deora’s wife Hema plays bridge, too.
HDFC chairman Deepak Parekh, a close friend for 35 years, was a regular opponent at the bridge table every Saturday and Sunday. “We met through our sons who were the closest of friends from nursery onwards,” Parekh said. This was long before Deora had become a big name in the Mumbai political circle.
As they grew professionally, Mumbai city became a shared passion — the city that Deora always wanted to return to even when he was in Delhi as Union petroleum minister. “He was a true Mumbaikar, we were on the same wavelength about changes we wanted to see for Mumbai,” Parekh said.
Deora would often recount to the slightly younger Parekh tales of his humble boyhood — a large family living in a small house, the times he spent studying on the steps of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan or under the lamppost at Chowpatty Bandstand.
From those humble beginnings, how Deora grew to become one of Mumbai’s most powerful Congress politicians is the stuff of legends. In fact, not only was he seen as the last surviving Mumbai-Delhi link for the Gandhi family, but the Mumbai Congress was more or less considered Deora’s outfit. In fact, it was at a dinner party thrown by Deora that Sonia made it apparent that she would enter active politics.
As the longest serving chief of the Mumbai Region Congress Committee, he is credited with building a cadre of Congressmen in the city, and with networking with industrialists to build an effective fund raising mechanism for the party from Mumbai. Elected first to the Bombay Municipal Corporation in the late 1960s, he also served as mayor before going on to contest the Lok Sabha polls. He represented the elite and prestigious Mumbai South Parliamentary constituency four times. Former Union minister A K Antony, who was a personal friend for nearly 30 years, told The Indian Express, “Deora’s contribution to building the party in the city was immense. He was a good friend to everybody.”
Murlibhai, as he was popularly called, was considered a friend even by political rivals. Not surprisingly, politicians in the 1980s and 1990s recall interesting stories of Deora’s comfortable equations with rivals such as Shiv Sena chief the late Bal Thackeray and the late BJP leader Pramod Mahajan. In the late 1970s, when Deora became the mayor of BMC, it was Thackeray’s Sena which extended its support to his candidature.
During a political career that spanned over three decades, Deora earned the tag of a friendly politician, somebody who hobnobbed with the who’s who in the world of politics and corporate India, but was always easily accessible at the Khaitan Bhawan office in South Mumbai. State Congress president Manikrao Thakre said, “His easy access to every party worker and contribution to BMC, Mumbai and country will remain in our memories.”
This trait made him one of those rare leaders in the party who could reach out to other political party leaders and resolve differences to get business going. His lunches — featuring a mix of political heavyweights, business leaders and others — were famous. Whether it was the late prime minister Narasimha Rao, Sitaram Kesri, Rajiv or Sonia — Deora played host when they visited the commercial capital. In the faction-ridden Mumbai Congress, it was Deora who had the ability to get everyone to work together. Former Maharashtra CM Prithviraj Chavan recalled his unique ability to play peacemaker in the local unit of the grand old party, a role Chavan said no one has been able to fulfil since then.
Elected to Rajya Sabha in 2004, Deora was picked to be Union petroleum minister in UPA-I, succeeding Mani Shankar Aiyar in what would then be termed as a controversial decision by the Manmohan Singh government. It was during his tenure as petroleum minister that the spat between the two Ambani brothers took place in 2008-09 over allocation of gas from the KG Basin in Andhra Pradesh. The younger Ambani accused Deora of backing Reliance Industries, controlled by his brother. It was ironic that Deora was caught in this feud, having been known for his close relations with Dhirubhai Ambani. Deora resigned in 2011 from the Union Cabinet as minister for corporate affairs, with son Milind later going on to be inducted as a minister of state.
Murlibhai was known for his meticulous lifestyle and his taste for good clothes. It was during his stint as minister for petroleum that he once jokingly remarked: “Look at how well I dress. And look at Milind. Am I not looking smarter and more handsome than him?”