In 1985, even as the nation was celebrating a young Prime Minister (Rajiv Gandhi) and the Congress its centenary in Mumbai, Murli Deora, who had begun his long stint as the city’s Congress president a few years earlier, found himself on the wrong end of the stick from the PM.
Deora’s decision to house the large number of Congress delegates at the Mahalaxmi race course ground proved rather problematic. Not only did it lead to a controversy on environmental degradation,but many delegates never turned up for the Congress centenary meetings at the Brabourne stadium. It was soon discovered that they did not make it beyond Kamathipura, the city’s red light district, which was en route to the venue, where the then PM was talking about cleaning up politics in the country.
Although the media was not as dogged in those days, the controversy annoyed Rajiv Gandhi immensely. But when he confronted Deora, he made no excuses for himself — but he did try one on behalf of the delegates. “Boys will be boys,” he told the PM, rather contritely. “I was wrong about the choice of venue, but they would have found their way to Kamathipura anyway, even if we had put them up miles away from that area.”
Angry though he was, Rajiv could not help smiling. It is a testimony to Deora’s charm that no one could remain angry with him for too long. Indeed, for the two-plus decades that he was Mumbai’s Congress president, if chief ministers Vasantdada Patil and Sharad Pawar were known as the uncrowned kings of Maharashtra, Deora clearly ruled the roost in Mumbai. He was more popular among entrepreneurs and industrialists, artists and culture vultures, party workers and leaders alike (he was the only Mumbai Congress president to have had the confidence of four party presidents, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Sitaram Kesri and Sonia Gandhi).
That, at times, also had a lasting effect on the city’s politics — like when, hating Deora’s sway over the city and Rajiv’s confidence in the man, Patil decided to skew the pitch during the 1985 Brihanmumbai municipal elections by giving the false impression that Deora and Rajiv were in a conspiracy to soon separate Mumbai from Maharashtra and convert it into a city state. That awakened a sleeping tiger — it brought the Shiv Sena to power in the BMC all on its own and Bal Thackeray suddenly went from being a paper tiger to one with real teeth and claws.
The city has never been the same again and it took Deora a long time to live down the reputation of being hand-in-glove with Bal Thackeray. But when Deora resigned in the mid-1990s after another debacle in the BMC, the Congress party’s donors would trust no other man.
Kesri, the then president, had to order a rare party election for the post of Mumbai president – Deora won hands down and went on to rule the roost again for nearly another decade.
The Congress has not returned to power in the BMC even once after Deora finally called it quits as Mumbai Congress chief in 2003.