He was elected an MLA five times, and became Chief Minister twice. Then he became a Rajya Sabha member and a Union Minister. But Vilasrao Deshmukh’s reputation as the quintessential politician seemed to rest on the fact that he contested the Maharashtra Legislative Council elections as a rebel backed by the Shiv Sena and then returned in style to the Congress. After losing the Assembly election in 1995, he was denied nomination to the Council the next year, and so decided to defy his party. For that transgression, he was expelled from the Congress for six years, but he made the comeback in just a year.
After this, nothing seemed to stick to him. He remained unscathed in the several scandals that were to crop up around his name. He seemed unaffected even by strictures from the Bombay High Court and the Supreme Court.
Since 1999, when Sharad Pawar broke away to form the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), he had wanted the Congress to go it alone in elections. Indeed, there was little love lost between the two Maratha politicians.
Mr. Deshmukh started his political career as a sarpanch (village chief) of Babhalgaon in Latur in the Marathwada region. He worked in the Youth Congress, rising to become district party president, before contesting the Assembly elections. He won three times in a row from 1980, and lost only in 1995. He came back with a resounding win from Latur in 1999 to become Chief Minister. He had already served in the State Cabinet, holding a variety of portfolios, even under Mr. Pawar, his bête noire.
Soon, factionalism in the State Congress, and the need for a leadership that could draw votes from the backward sections, prompted the Congress to replace him with Sushil Kumar Shinde in 2003. Again, in 2004, he found himself in the Chief Minister’s chair — but only until the November 2008 terror strikes in Mumbai. His much publicised visit to the bombed-out Taj Mahal Hotel with filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma in tow put paid to his tenure. He stepped down, and Ashok Chavan took over.
But Mr. Deshmukh did not sink into oblivion. He was given a Rajya Sabha nomination and joined the Union Cabinet, where he was put in charge of Heavy Industries. This too came to an end after a row over protection he had extended to a moneylender. The Supreme Court passed some strictures and imposed a fine of Rs. 10 lakh — which the State government ended up paying. The Congress high command seemed to have interpreted this order as an accolade, and only changed his portfolio to Rural Development.
In February 2012, the Bombay High Court found that he had misused his official position as Chief Minister to grant permission for a film training institute, Whistling Woods, to use 21 acres of land in Film City for a pittance. Protection of moneylenders, getting land at a pittance, allotting flats at low rates, and finally the Adarsh society scam where he denied having cleared any of the files on his last day as Chief Minister in 2003, hardly dented the typical Vilasrao Deshmukh poise.
In an interview to The Hindu in April 2009 before kicking off his campaign in Vidarbha as the leader in charge of the State election management committee, he said the farm suicides issue had been settled. He was famously quoted in another media interview as saying that the government had not penalised farmers who did take the extreme step. Like some other notable politicians, he was dismissive of the crisis and felt that enough had been done to resolve it.
But he was miffed at his ouster as Chief Minister a second time. His supporters created a clear divide in the State party and made life miserable for Mr. Chavan.
He liked to project the ‘family man’ image. His wife Vaishali, interviewed for a blog, said she often cooked for her husband mutton sukke, his favourite dish. His eldest son Amit is the MLA from Latur city, second son Riteish is an actor, and third is Dheeraj.
Vilasrao Deshmukh will be remembered for his flamboyance. He was always conscious of his hairstyle and spotless appearance. He had a certain aplomb even while dealing with adversities — of which he seemed to have a rather long list.