He was like my brother and despite being from a rival party, he used to openly declare that Mr Bhujbal is my leader in OBC movement. I came in contact with him in 1989-90 when the idea of forming a Shiv Sena-BJP alliance was taking shape. I was then in the Sena.
When I was in Sharad Pawar’s cabinet in 1992-95, Gopinath Munde was leader of the opposition and used to fearlessly attack our government. In 1995, the Sena-BJP came to power and I became leader of opposition in the legislative council. It was my turn to attack the ruling government. Initially CM Manohar Joshi used to come to the Upper House. Each time I opened my mouth, he used to send Munde, the deputy CM, to respond. Still, after the session, Munde would walk up to me and shake hands. We got closer in course of the OBC movement.
All the OBCs in Maharashtra and in the country had high hopes of Munde; we finally had our representative at the Centre. Once the headcount was done, we were expecting a separate department and budget… better policies for housing, schooling and healthcare.
Recently when I lost and Munde got elected, he called me up. When he should have been lost in celebrations, he told me such things happen; I should rise again.
When Pramod Mahajan, his godfather at the Centre, was shot dead, everyone said Munde would be sidelined, posing a question mark on the future of the BJP in the sate. But he held the Mahajan family and the party together. It is only because of him that Poonam Mahajan got the candidature and got elected. He brought all smaller factions together; he was the sculptor of the alliance in the state. And if ever the party were to come to power in the state, if the BJP were to win more seats, Munde would definitely have become the CM. The BJP, which has been primarily a party of upper castes, has lost the person who lent it its OBC face.
It is Maharashtra’s tragedy that over the last decade it has lost three big leaders, all from Marathwada, who climbed their way to the top. Deshmukh, Mahajan and Munde were young, enthusiastic leaders who went all the way to the union cabinet, only to meet an untimely death.
As told to Shalini Nair