A lesser man's career might have ended long ago. But Vilasrao Deshmukh is not a lesser man. His success mounts in inverse proportion to his achievements.
Going by the form book, Union Science and Technology Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh is due for a promotion. He's just been mangled by the Bombay High Court, setting some sort of record for a Minister getting roughed up by the higher judiciary. And every time some amazing act of the former sarpanch of Babalgaon has landed the government in deep trouble, he's been rewarded, even promoted. The classic instance being Prime Minister Manmohan Singh elevating him as Union Rural Development Minister soon after a Supreme Court judgment that would surely have cost most others their job. The apex court had fined Mr. Deshmukh Rs. 10 lakh for stopping a moneylender from being arrested in Vidarbha while he was Chief Minister of Maharashtra. Unless you see usury at criminal rates of interest as a vital plank of rural progress, Dr. Singh's logic was hard to follow. And the Maharashtra government even paid up the fine for Mr. Deshmukh.
The Adarsh scam
In the Adarsh scam, Mr. Deshmukh is one of three former Chief Ministers under a cloud. As The Hindu (June 18, 2011) reported, he stoutly denied having cleared the file on that sleazy deal on his last day as Chief Minister. He also rebutted charges of fudging the records. The courts long ago slammed the CBI for its tardy investigation into the Adarsh rip-off. That vital files keep vanishing has not helped the baffled sleuths in their task.
Last week, the BombayHigh Court said Vilasrao Deshmukh “clearly misused his official position as a Chief Minister of a State.” This was in connection with a deal struck by the Maharashtra Film, Stage and Cultural Development Corporation while he was Chief Minister. The deal, a “joint venture,” gave Subhash Ghai's film training institute, Whistling Woods, possession of 20 acres of prime real estate at rock bottom rates. “We clearly disapprove the conduct of Respondent No. 7 [Vilasrao Deshmukh] …”, said the court. It rapped him for the role he played “in the entire proceedings leading to the signing of the JV agreement.” The whole deal, said the outraged Court, was “illegal, arbitrary and without authority of law.” But Mr. Deshmukh's track record defies the laws of gravity, leave alone those of the nation.
In December 2010, Justice A.K. Ganguly of the Supreme Court admonished Mr. Deshmukh in scathing terms in the moneylender case. In his judgment, Justice Ganguly said he found the message it conveyed “extremely shocking and it shocks the conscience of this Court about the manner in which the Constitutional functionaries behaved in the State of Maharashtra.” (Justice Ganguly is no stranger to shocking things and was more recently on the bench which gave that historic verdict in the 2G scam). The judgment went on to say “it is clear that the Chief Minister was aware of various complaints being filed against the said family [the moneylenders]. Even then he passed an order for a special treatment in favour of the said family which is unknown to law.”
The judgment noted that Mr. Deshmukh's action “amounts to bestowing special favour to some chosen few at the cost of the vast number of poor people who, as farmers, have taken loans and who have come to the authorities of law and order to register their complaints against torture and atrocities by the moneylenders.” And so Mr. Deshmukh set another record. It is hard to recall when a Cabinet Minister and former Chief Minister was punished and fined this way by the highest court of the land.
Prime Minister Singh's response? He promptly elevated the man blasted for protecting moneylenders in his State to a portfolio that put him in charge of rural development across the whole country.
Close to 30,000 farmers committed suicide in Maharashtra during Mr. Deshmukh's eight years as Chief Minister. That is more than half the total of 50,481 farm suicides the State has seen since 1995, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. It was in Mr. Deshmukh's time that Maharashtra emerged the worst State in the country for farmers' suicides. And that, for a decade without a break.
Before his reign began, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh were doing a lot worse in some years. Today, Karnataka, the State with the second highest number of farm suicides in the country, has a total that is 15,000 less than that of Maharashtra. In 2006, the height of the Deshmukh raj, his State saw 4,453 farmers take their own lives. No other State has ever logged a more heart-breaking figure.
But the only blip on Mr. Deshmukh's record till 2008 had nothing to do with all this. He did lose his chief ministership for 22 months in 2003. But that, as his website puts it, was due to “factionalism in the state unit of the party.” He bounced back stronger with the full backing of the Congress at the Centre. In the 2004 polls, he promised cotton farmers in both Vidarbha and his own Marathwada region that he would raise the minimum support price for cotton by Rs. 500. He did exactly the opposite on being elected, withdrawing the “advance bonus” of Rs. 500 that cotton farmers were receiving till then. The move tanked prices, hit lakhs of farmers and saw distress sweep the cotton countryside.
On the farm suicides, Mr. Deshmukh saw himself as gentle and caring. As he told the Hindustan Times (October 31, 2007): “Committing suicide is an offence under the Indian Penal Code. But did we book any farmer for this offence? Have you reported that?” He went down to Vidarbha to soothe the offended peasants, in the company of the redoubtable Mr. Vaghela. His healing touch came in a speech suggesting the farmers were lazy and less than honest and this was the cause of their problems. As outrage spread, he asserted he had been “quoted out of context” (The Hindu, September 15, 2007).
In his last three years as Chief Minister from 2005, the State lost 2 million jobs according to the economic survey of his own government. That is, Maharashtra lost on average 1800 jobs every single day. And that was well before the global economic meltdown struck in September 2008. (Oddly, the labour portfolio at the Centre wasn't given to him for this achievement. Or maybe it was and he turned it down as small potatoes. Maybe Prime Minister Singh's call now for more labour ‘reforms' is a signal to him that this beat is his for the taking).
None of this, however, cost him the chief ministership a second time. He might even have survived the clamour for his head after the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. But Vilasrao thought it a smart idea to visit the terror-shattered Taj and Trident Hotels with his actor son and the Bollywood filmmaker, Ram Gopal Varma, in tow. Doubtless the tragic events threw up a rich vein of cinematic potential. Public outrage saw his party hand him the pink slip.
A lesser man's career might have ended there. But Mr. Deshmukh is not a lesser man. His success mounts in inverse proportion to his achievements. After a brief sojourn nowhere, Mr. Deshmukh entered the Union Cabinet as Minister for Heavy Industry and Public Enterprises in May 2009. After the scathing Supreme Court judgment, he was made Union Minister for Rural Development. And in the last reshuffle, he became Minister for Science and Technology.
Cricket association president
He is nothing if not versatile. While tackling the duties that portfolio imposed on him, he found time to get elected president of the Mumbai Cricket Association. He defeated cricket legend Dilip Vengsarkar to grab the post. Unlike the latter, his love of the game was more detached, less direct. Mr. Deshmukh has not played cricket at any significant level. (It is not known if he represented Babalgaon at the sport).
He also became the Minister for Earth Sciences (which, as often pointed out, is seen in his home State as jargon for real estate expertise). Jealous detractors say it is his raising this sector to the level of a science that makes him priceless to the Congress. But he is useful to them in many ways beyond this, for few are left in that party who understand the internal dynamics of its rivals in the State as he does. So where does he head next, now that the Bombay High Court has added another decoration to his war record? Chief Minister of Maharashtra? Watch this space.