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‘The non-Brahmins in the party feel they are being ignored’
Tête à tête

Gopinath Pandurang Munde is the king of his realm. In Delhi recently, he sat like a quiet schoolboy next to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Sushma Swaraj. In Mumbai, he is a different man forthcoming when he wants to be, and carefully watching his words when he needs to.

“The crisis is over and I am relieved,” says the BJP deputy leader in the Lok Sabha, as he sits on the green velvet sofa in his living room on the 11th floor of Purna Apartments in south Mumbai.

The last few days had been exceptionally busy for Munde, who created a stir when he threatened to quit his party. There were whispers about his joining the Congress. Then, at a press conference addressed by Swaraj in end June, he declared all was well, and that he had no intentions of leaving the BJP. “I am here to stay,” says Munde, 61. “I have made a major contribution to my party in pulling up its performance graph. I have devoted my entire life to the BJP,” he says.

The reason for his sudden sulks, Maharashtra watchers say, was the appointment of corporator Vikas Mathkari as the president of the party’s Pune unit. Mathkari is viewed as a man supported by BJP national president Nitin Gadkari’s camp; the Munde faction, on the other hand, had backed former Pune general secretary Yogesh Gogawale for the post.

But Munde now brushes all this aside. “I never stated that I was unhappy with the appointment of anyone. Also, I never had any problems with Gadkari. He is an efficient colleague. We worked together when he was the public works department minister and I was deputy chief minister in Maharashtra in 1995. I have other concerns,” he says.

What kind of concerns? “Our workers at the grassroots level have been sidelined by those who are ruling the party now at the state level. I don’t want to name anyone, but the workers feel suffocated and can’t work in an environment like this. No army can fight if it’s confused,” says a forthright Munde, who has been associated with his party for 35 years.

What about rumours that he was eyeing the post of the leader of the Opposition in the state legislative Assembly and wanted to be Maharashtra state in-charge at the Centre (a job which is now held by M. Venkaiah Naidu)? “These are all stories that are floated by groups with vested interests. I never made any such demand,” he says with a smile. “I am well placed in the party. There has been no threat to my position but I raised my voice for the workers,” says the member of Parliament (MP) from Beed in Maharashtra.

Yet Munde dressed in a starched white kurta and pyjama admits that his concerns have not always been addressed on time. “Even this time, it was addressed very late,” he says. “It took 25 days for the leaders to take up my grievances.”

In the last weeks of June, he had two meetings with senior party leaders L.K. Advani, Venkaiah Naidu, general secretary Ananth Kumar and with Gadkari. But Munde was asked not to speak to the media till he met Swaraj. “Around 90 per cent of the problem was solved in my meetings with Advaniji and the others. The remaining issues were addressed during my meeting with Sushmaji,” he says.

But what about the rumour that he had met Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan and Congress leader Ahmed Patel in a bid to join the Congress? “I never met them,” replies Munde.

Yet it was an open secret that Munde was unhappy with his party leaders. He skipped a joint BJP-Shiv Sena rally with their new partner, the Athawale faction of the Republican Party of India (RPI), on May 28. He also didn’t attend a joint rally organised by the Shiv Sena-BJP with the RPI on June 9.

Munde admits that there are problems that the BJP and Shiv Sena need to sort out. “Both the Shiv Sena and the BJP have a bigger struggle in the days ahead. The parties should instil confidence in the minds of the grassroots workers and assure them that they are important. Plus, both the parties should transfer their votes to each other for a fruitful alliance.”

This is not the first time that Munde’s bitterness with the party has become public. In 2008, he had resigned from all key posts over the appointment of MLA Madhu Chavan as the head of the party’s Mumbai unit. Later, Chavan was removed from the post. His detractors in the party have often in private called for Munde’s removal, arguing that it would bring his “pressure tactics” to an end.

Munde smiles at this. “If this was what the party wanted, I would accept its decision.”

There’s no denying that the anti-Munde camp has been effectively seeking to sideline the MP, who was not invited to a meeting of state BJP legislators and parliamentarians in Mumbai on June 21. “I was shocked that after spending 35 years in the party, I wasn’t even invited to the meeting,” he says.

The problem with the state leaders, he further elucidates, is their “poor” communication. “Plus, they don’t have any confidence in each other. They need to be united in thought and action,” he says.

Munde admits that there are “divisions” in the party. “Owing to this, the number of MLAs came down to 46 in 2009 from 55 in 2004. Every political party should work in a system and that system is missing in the state unit of the BJP,” he says.

But, despite the internal hiccups, the BJP national general secretary has no regrets about his role in the party. The son of a Vanjari OBC farmer of Nathra village in Beed, Munde never thought that he would grow to such heights. “My mother feels happy that I have become successful in life,” he says.

Now, as he sits in his living room with two sets of sofas, one brown and the other sea green, matching the curtains in the room Munde recalls the journey from the village. Behind him, two large glass windows look out onto the Bandra-Worli sea link.

Munde was the third child among five siblings in his family. He was educated in a government school in the village. “We were taught under a tree,” he recalls.

Later he moved to the tehsil town of Parali for his secondary education in a zilla parishad school. “It was a tough life of battles against poverty in the perennially drought-stricken Beed district. This was the time when I made up my mind to do some thing for the people,” he says.

And he did work for his people especially the Vanjari community. He brought grassroots workers from his community into the Jan Sangh, the BJP’s predecessor, and then to the BJP, expanding the party’s then restricted social base. “The BJP’s main support base in the state consists of the OBCs. And my popularity among the OBCs has helped the party strengthen its base,” he says.

But what about charges against Gadkari that OBCs were being sidelined in the party? “The non-Brahmins in the party feel they are being ignored,” he admits.

Munde was once an immensely powerful figure in Maharashtra, his position strengthened by the clout his brother-in-law, the late Pramod Mahajan, enjoyed. He had met Mahajan when he was studying commerce in a college in Ambejogai and hoping to join student politics. Mahajan was his “best friend” and Munde later married his sister. “It was Pramod who introduced me to student politics and later to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh,” he says. “He was a great cricketer and also a good debater.”

He recalls that rainy July night, when he and Mahajan went on a motorcycle from Parbhani district to Ambejogai to see Mahajan’s newly-born son, Rahul. “It was just before the Emergency period. So we had to be back that very night after seeing him. It was quite thrilling,” he says.

Munde’s voice falters when he recalls another fateful day the morning of April 22, 2006, when Mahajan was shot by his brother Pravin, and succumbed to injuries later in hospital. The Mahajans lived in the same multi-storeyed building. He recalls how his wife Rekha came running to Munde for help and how he rushed him to a hospital.

“Pramod had asked me just one question: what wrong did he do to Pravin that he tried to kill him.” Munde’s eyes are moist now. “I suffered a personal loss but his death created a political vacuum in the party,” he says.

Munde, however, is not very keen to talk about Mahajan’s children wannabe politician Poonam and reality show star Rahul. The father of three daughters Pankaja, Pritam and Yashashri talks even less about his own children. “My eldest daughter Pankaja, who is an MLA, is doing very well in politics. Pritam is a doctor and Yashashri is studying law. I am proud of all three,” he says, cutting me short. He gets up abruptly and looks at his silver-and-gold plated watch. It’s time for him to leave he has an important meeting. And that too with Gadkari. After all, Munde has always stressed that his motto is Party before Self.

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