The sudden death of Gopinath Munde, veteran BJP leader and Cabinet colleague of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on Tuesday following a motor accident in the national capital marks a tragic milestone very early in the term of the BJP-led government at the Centre.
This untimely loss can conceivably have an unsettling effect on an incipient governing arrangement, although many will hope that the dynamism of the PM will help the government tide over the setback.
The deceased leader was a man of wide experience, unlike many in the BJP’s top brass. He was in his time deputy chief minister of Maharashtra and was a minister at the Centre in the last NDA government headed by Atal Behari Vajpayee. But his most important attribute was that he was a mass leader in his home state.
It is fair to say that no other senior figure of the saffron party enjoyed a pan-Maharashtra image as a mass leader. To the departed political stalwart goes the credit of taking the BJP, once mainly the preserve of the Hindu upper castes, to the Backward Classes in Maharashtra, dominated for so long by top guns of the Congress and the NCP.
This is why the death of the veteran leaves a bigger void than would the demise of an individual Cabinet minister in the ordinary course. If we survey the country as a whole, mass leaders in the BJP have been few and far between, and he was in that small minority. This was the reason it was being widely speculated that Gopinath Munde would be the BJP’s choice for chief minister if the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance won the Assembly election in Maharashtra, due in October this year.
Of course, such a matter is not easily settled. Since the BJP has the Prime Minister, the expectation in the Sena was that the post of CM should come to it in accordance with the unwritten code of coalition dharma. Ironically, only a day prior to the death of the Union rural development minister, an editorial in the Sena mouthpiece Saamna sought to comment on the ambition of the BJP’s mass leader in Maharashtra.
The BJP has nursed the hope of bagging the CM’s post if it wins more seats than the Sena and the combination gains a majority in the legislature. The Tuesday tragedy is likely to weaken its hand in dealing with a state ally whose stature and ambition have grown since its good showing in the recent Lok Sabha election.
Will this cast a shadow on Sena-BJP relations? Much would probably depend on how the two partners approach seat-sharing negotiations preceding the Assembly poll. But in the long run, the BJP does appear to have been weakened in an important state.