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Murli Deora: A politician for all seasons

November 24, 2014 18:38 IST

N Suresh pays tribute to a consummate politician who passed into the ages on Monday.

Murli Deora the politician was better known to us journalists as Murlibhai. Not in the common Bambaiya appellation of bhai this, but in a loving manner, like the Bengali dada, showing affection and a little reverence.

I remember him as jovial, ever-smiling, and as someone who one could learn a lot from. He could connect across age groups and classes. So while a local contractor could have chai with him, he was also a personal friend of Dhirubhai Ambani. 

Murlibhai was a thorough politician, he knew whom to keep and use, of course if the person gave him a chance. He was also an astute networker. And the one skill he had was to make friends across the spectrum. Moreover, he was a simple man who had no ego and wouldn’t hesitate to introduce people to one another. He knew he needed friends in high places.

My experiences with him have been wide-ranging and I feel that some of the excellent qualities Murlibhai had, very few politicians of today possess. Deora was a stickler for time and very disciplined. Whenever he was in Mumbai, he would attend his office without fail. In fact every weekend, even during the hectic Parliament session, he was at his Churchgate office in South Mumbai, where all were allowed to visit him.

His own son, a former MP who succeeded him in the same Mumbai South constituency and who believes in “meeting with appointment only”, can take a few tips from his late father. People from the Colaba slums, his employees and journalists, all would throng to meet him. 

An affable personality, Murlibhai ensured nobody went away dissatisfied. It is true you can't keep everyone happy, but this was one politician who had the knack to do so. He would sweet-talk and convince someone wanting to do a job for Rs 7000 that Rs 5000 was just right. He ensured nobody went away empty-handed from his door, and given his knack of sweet-talking they invariably returned. 

I rarely saw Murlibhai get angry, barring once. It was before the 24x7 television news channel era. At Mantralaya, the seat of power in Maharashtra, teams from two private media houses who were doing the live election results coverage kept Deora waiting and he was understandably angry. He valued time, both his and of others, and was hugely conscious of the political hierarchy. 

Murlibhai was a smooth operator, and maybe because of his Marwari roots and business acumen he got things done. In 1996, the campaigning for the Lok Sabha elections was not going smooth for the Congress, especially in the Muslim areas of the city. This was the first Lok Sabha election after the Babri Masjid demolition in December 1992 and there was intense anger among the Muslim community at the Congress party, and at its member of Parliament Murlibhai for the riots happened in his constituency and the community felt he did not do enough to help them.

But Murlibhai got a tipoff that his rally at Crawford Market the next day would be disrupted. The crowds had come prepared with various projectiles – like eggs and tomatoes – but the political tact of this man was unsurpassable, he took along with him the party’s other MP, Sunil Dutt, who had immense appeal among Muslims. Seeing Dutt most of the protestors melted away, except at one-two places where some youth tried to shout slogans against Murlibhai and threw eggs at him. Some residents and locals also criticised Dutt for supporting a ‘cunning and opportunist politician’ like Murlibhai then.

There is a footnote to this incident. Most of us reported all this. A young reporter from a leading national newspaper too had filed her report describing all this. To her horror, however, the next morning her completely anti-Deora piece appeared as a totally positive piece! She quit her job in frustration, but the politician had had the last laugh. How many of today's veteran politicians can manage to get away with such a thing without getting a negative word printed against them! 

While criticism against Murlibhai, of perpetuating a dynasty (his son Milind succeeded him as MP for two terms) and creating a strong lobby in the Mumbai Congress is valid, his rivals too tried similar stunts, except they were not in the same league as Murlibhai.

His place and power in Mumbai Congress was such that even in the recent elections Murlibhai's word was final.

Few can manage that despite illness and politicking.

Image: Murli Deora. Photograph: B Mathur/Reuters.

N Suresh