Union rural development minister Gopinath Munde was known for his flamboyance. Yet, his death in a road accident in Delhi on Tuesday was uncharacteristically sudden. Quite like the unexpected demise of his popular brother-in-law Pramod Mahajan eight years ago.
Munde was born on December 12, 1949, to Pandurangrao and Limbabai in Nathra village of Beed district, the dust bowl of Marathwada. He had a sister and three brothers.
The family was part of the Warkari sect and belonged to the Vanjari community, which is among the other backward classes (OBCs). After his father's death, his elder brother Panditanna helped him complete his education.
It was at Yogeshwari college in Ambejogai that he met Mahajan and was drawn into the students' movement. He got over his initial reticence and matured into a good orator and joined the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), then the students' wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Munde later joined the RSS and worked with the organisation in Ambejogai, Aurangabad and Pune. He was mentored by principal Rajabhau Dhat, who appointed him as a functionary in ABVP. From the 1971 Lok Sabha polls, he became active in the Jan Sangh, the nationalist political party that was the predecessor of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Munde established himself firmly as a leader in the 1990s, when the OBCs began to assert themselves socially and politically post-Mandal. The Vanjaris, who are significant in number, are among the upwardly mobile OBC groups like the Malis and Dhangars.
It is the following he built up among the OBCs and other Bahujan castes that helped him gain the status of a mass leader in BJP and also enabled the party to change its hitherto Brahmanical, upper caste, urban image. He used his rustic, commoners' touch to expand the party's base and even drew leaders from other parties.
Munde supported the 'Namantar' movement, for the renaming of the Marathwada University after Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, which had become a matter of self-esteem for Dalits, and campaigned for the implementation of the Mandal report.
He married Mahajan's sister Pradnya, a significant union also because she is a Brahmin. They have three daughters — the eldest Pankaja, who is an MLA from Parli, Pritam, now a doctor, and Yashashri. Pankaja is expected to carry forward his political legacy.
Both Munde, who heard speeches of then RSS chief MS Golwalkar, Shripati Shastri and Atal Bihari Vajpayee during his Sangh days, and Mahajan were groomed by Jan Sangh and BJP strategist late Vasantrao Bhagwat, who also picked Dharamchand Choradia and Prakash Jawadekar. Bhagwat is credited with expanding BJP beyond its core Brahmin and trader base by grooming leaders from the backward castes, the Dalits and tribal communities.
During the Emergency, Munde, Mahajan and their friend Jaisingrao Gaikwad Patil, who were underground, were arrested in Aurangabad on October 1, 1975, and lodged at Harsul jail for two months, till they were released on bail. They were re-arrested and detained at Nashik Road prison for 15 months and 20 days.
Munde, who liked reading Marathi dramas and novels, started his electoral career as a zilla parishad member. In 1980, he was elected from Renapur assembly constituency (Renapur is today's Parli). In 1985, he faced a shock defeat against Panditrao Daund (Congress). He bounced back the following year, when he was made the state BJP chief, the youngest to be appointed to the post.
In 1990, a year after Mahajan struck a coalition with Shiv Sena, which turned out to be a game changer, Munde was re-elected from Renapur. After Chhagan Bhujbal quit Sena, Munde, who was also influenced by Jan Sangh veteran Uttamrao Patil, was quick to replace Sena's Manohar Joshi as leader of the opposition and went all guns blazing against the then chief minister Sharad Pawar.
Munde, who had friends across political lines, led mass programmes and the Sangharsh Yatra, with a charter against the Maratha strongman. He also promised to "bring (underworld don) Dawood back (to India) in shackles" and "throw the (controversial) Enron (power project) into the Arabian Sea" if elected. His detractors criticised him for first opposing the Enron project and then endorsing it.
When Sena-BJP came to power in 1995, humbling Congress, which was unbeaten till then, riding on this public campaign and late Sena chief Bal Thackeray's charisma, Munde became the deputy chief minister with charge of the home ministry in the dispensation led by Joshi and, subsequently, Narayan Rane. He was credited with having decimated the Mumbai underworld through police encounters.
But for a man who once held undisputed sway in the state BJP, the skies turned cloudy after Mahajan's death, and some party leaders tried to corner him. In 2008, an uneasy Munde complained of being sidelined by a group loyal to then state chief Nitin Gadkari. He quit all party posts, but was later pacified.
A year later, he was elected to the Lok Sabha from Beed in an election that was polarised by caste. He was made deputy leader of the opposition. A rift within the family manifested itself when his nephew Dhananjay, an MLC, and then his brother Panditanna quit the party and joined Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).
A couple of years ago, rumours suggested that an unhappy Munde might switch to Congress. Then, in 2013, in an attempt to pitch himself as Pawar's strongest political opponent, he filed his nomination against him in the polls for the Maharashtra Cricket Association.
In the recent Lok Sabha polls, he trounced former associate Suresh Dhus (NCP) from Beed and was picked by prime minister Narendra Modi as Union rural development minister. It was also said he would lead BJP in the forthcoming assembly polls as the chief ministerial candidate, an aspiration cut short by his sudden death.
But Munde's politics had its flipside. While he emerged as a leader of the Vanjari community, many of whom are sugarcane cutters, Munde was also a sugar baron of sorts, controlling sugar factories.
Munde and Mahajan were also accused of slighting and sidelining veterans Suryabhan Vahadne and Motiram Lahane. He was also criticised for leading a colourful life and his statement about having spent Rs8 crore during his 2009 Lok Sabha election campaign got him into trouble with the Election Commission.
There was also a row over his education qualifications, as described in the affidavit he filed for the recent elections.