| Vilasrao Deshmukh (right) is greeted by Sushil Kumar Shinde in Mumbai on Thursday. (AFP)
New Delhi, Jan. 16: The capital was abuzz — he was Sonia Gandhi’s choice to take over the reins of the Democratic Front government in Maharashtra. But Sushil Kumar Shinde kept his emotions in check.
It was Tuesday. The 61-year-old veteran leader had arrived at his 80, Lodhi Road residence in the capital a few hours after Vilasrao Deshmukh’s meeting with the Congress chief on Monday night when the word spread thick and fast.
The talk of his return to Maharashtra politics after a gap of over eight years — this time to take up the top job — did not overwhelm him, at least not in any visible ways.
“Did you rush to Delhi after summons from the party chief' Have you met Sonia after you arrived last night' Have you been asked to accompany the Central observers to Mumbai'” he was asked by a couple of reporters during a brief chat. In a nutshell, had he been asked to take over as chief minister'
To all these queries, Shinde’s reply was: “If you are my well-wisher, please do not ask me any questions about Maharashtra. Because, I have confronted this kind of a situation at least thrice earlier.”
Though his name had come up over half-a-dozen times as a probable candidate for the hot seat, Shinde said on three occasions — once in the eighties, in 1993 and in 1999 — there was the proverbial slip between the cup and the lip. “I would be the happiest person if I get the job this time. But past experiences have taught (me) not to celebrate before it really happens.”
Understandably, he was modest when people began calling him up. “Arre bhai, abhi tak kuch nahi hua hain (Please, nothing has happened till now),” was his stock reply to the callers among whom were several Union ministers, including Murli Manohar Joshi.
Shinde’s elevation has more to do with his experience in the state, both as minister and organisational leader, than his Dalit background. Curiously, the reason why he lost the race to head the Democratic Front government three years ago became his strength this time: his excellent rapport with National Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar.
Pawar initiated Shinde — who is as proficient in Kannada as Marathi — to Congress politics in 1971. Since then, this former clerk in a lower court and sub-inspector with Mumbai police has been a member of the Maharashtra Assembly without a break and a minister until 1995, when the party lost power in the state for the first time.
The Dalit leader from Solapur in western Maharashtra has represented the Solapur Lok Sabha seat since 1998.
That he would be considered for bigger responsibilities became evident last year when Sonia chose Shinde as the combined Opposition’s candidate for the post of Vice-President.