The 64-year BJP leader from the OBC Vanzari community was among the party’s strongest mass leaders in Maharashtra and was expected to lead the party in the state assembly polls in October

He was a politician who often kept his word but rarely did he turn up in time for appointments. Union Minister and senior BJP leader Gopinath Munde, who passed away on Tuesday, would routinely run at least two hours behind schedule. “What can I do? People keep dropping in to see me,” the 64-year-old would say disarmingly.

Meeting him at his bungalow in Beed district meant jostling with sugarcane-cutters, brick-kiln workers and party activists, who did not mind waiting for hours. His campaign was incomplete without an impromptu bhakri-and-chutney meal with local farmers.

With his death, both the party and the State have lost a genuine mass leader at a time when election campaigns are increasingly conducted through television and social media. A grassroots politician, he rose against great odds from a rural background to reach the Union government. However, Munde could not fufil his dream of becoming the Chief Minister of Maharashtra.

An OBC from the Vanjari community, Munde was the son of a farmer from the arid and drought-prone Marathwada region. “I had no chappals till I finished the 10th standard. When my wife tells me to take care of my feet after strenuous rallies, I remind her about it,” he would tell reporters.

He jumped into politics in his student days, joining the ABVP and later the Jan Sangh. He was also keenly involved in the activities of the RSS. In college, he met the late BJP leader Pramod Mahajan, with whom he forged a lifelong political partnership, mentored by RSS leader Vasant Bhagwat. They later became brothers-in-law with Munde marrying Mahajan’s sister, an inter-caste marriage for which they risked social boycott.

“The BJP in Maharashtra was largely a Brahmin party, but under Gopinath Munde it acquired a large OBC following. He never preached Hindutva so he was able to attract a very diverse following,” says senior journalist Rahi Bhide.

Once he began his electoral innings, he did not look back. Beginning with posts at the zilla parishad level, he later became a five-term MLA from Beed and was also elected twice to the Lok Sabha from the same constituency.

He rose to become the Deputy Chief Minister in the Shiv Sena-BJP government in Maharashtra from 1995-2000, handling the Home and Energy portfolios.

He had a brush with scandal during his tenure, when he was accused of allotting a flat to a Tamasha artiste. His denial prompted Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray to shoot back, “Pyar kiya to darna kya [If in love, what’s there to fear?]?”

Munde later became a key mediator in the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance, though he was never keen to work under Bal Thackeray’s son and successor Uddhav, who was much younger to him.

The Mahajan-Munde duo went on to occupy key positions in the BJP with Mahajan climbing the national ladder and Munde heading the party in the State. However, they were accused of monopolising power and sidelining other aspirants, including Nitin Gadkari.

Pramod Mahajan’s murder (he was shot dead by his brother Pravin Mahajan) in 2006 was Munde’s greatest political setback. His star in the BJP declined, his isolation increasing after his rival Mr. Gadkari was appointed the national BJP president. Finding himself sidelined, Munde was said to be actively considering switching to the Congress with his close friend, the former Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, acting as the mediator.

However, he stayed within the party fold and found himself back in the reckoning, especially in his home State. He led the State’s campaign in the Lok Sabha elections, stitching up valuable alliances with smaller parties.

An aggressive leader and talented orator, Gipinath Munde was considered one of the strongest adversaries of Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar. When Mr. Pawar was Chief Minister, Munde targeted him on the Enron issue, threatening to “throw it into the Arabian Sea” if voted to power. However, this was a promise Munde did not fulfil.

The senior BJP leader was known for his ready wit and sense of humour. “I have never seen him lose his temper. He seems to have time for everyone,” said a close aide.

He is survived by his wife and three daughters, the eldest of whom, Pankaja, is the current MLA from Beed. His niece Poonam Mahajan is the MP from Mumbai North Central.

The BJP will face the challenge of filling the vacuum with someone who straddles all the different spheres as Munde did.

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