The first comeback in 1999
After the unexpected setback in the 1995 elections and his subsequent loss in the Vidhan Parishad elections, Vilasrao had slowly but steadily begun retracing his path back into the Congress. The situation, however, had now changed considerably and it was no longer possible for the Congress to dominate the Maharashtra State solely on its own strength. Senior leader Shri Sharad Pawar had launched his own Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in those days. In times, when the BJP-Shivsena was in power at the centre, Vilasrao Deshmukh once again assumed power as MLA. Gaining a record win from Latur Constituency, as if in retribution, the people had corrected their past mistake of Vilasrao's failure at the elections.
The existing political scenario at the time was one of a natural power struggle between the Congress-NCP alliance, as a result of which, the ruling BJP-Shivsena government had got a windfall of seats. In such a situation the question of keeping the Congress flag flying over Maharashtra was a key area of concern. Under these circumstances, the Congress Party High Command Mrs Sonia Gandhi and her deputy in Maharashtra, Shri Madhavrao Scindia, took the ambitious decision to choose the newly elected Vilasrao Deshmukh as the head of Congress MLAs in Maharashtra. Many MPs also supported Vilasrao, thanks to his excellent history and reputation in the party circles. Later, both Congress and NCP found a common ground and development a join front for working together to establish secularism and banishing communal interests. During this period, many workers of the Congress working committee as well as senior party leaders suggested Vilasrao as their choice for Chief Minister under the newly formed alliance government of Congress-NCP.
The very same Vilasrao who was removed from the party just four years back and who had later rejoined the party from scratch and worked his way up to prove his dedication and loyalty was now being honoured with the most important position of Chief Minister under the Congress-NCP alliance. His credibility was thus reinstated and adequately appreciated by Smt Sonia Gandhi, AIIC President who handed over the mantle of Maharashtra's Chief Ministership into Shri Vilasrao Deshmukh's able hands.
This was a dramatic come-back for Vilasrao and a deserving one too – as it is never so easy to run a government built on alliance between two parties but at a time, when the issue of secularism was at the zenith, it was a great opportunity for Vilasrao to prove his worth by taking over the reins of the government. He managed it very efficiently. To back him up in this crucial position of power, his versatile background and knowhow of virtually every portfolio came in handy for Vilasrao and helped him establish his image as a highly efficient and highly versatile Chief Minister in the entire nation. In an independent survey undertaken by India Today magazine, Vilasrao was ranked as India's most popular Chief Minister in terms of credibility and administrative efficiency.
Political and socio-economic campaigns
At that time, the Congress-NCP government built on the strength of several independent candidates and opposition members. The party thus risked the danger of losing majority at any time. Moreover, the Congress-NCP government that came to power in 1999 had not only inherited empty coffers but also government debts of over Rs.34,000 crores.
The total loss on interest payable by the government was estimated at Rs.5,596 lakhs.
On one hand, the government faced fiscal bankruptcy and on the other hand, a weak alliance built only on the strength of smaller parties and independents. The situation
was a tough one for any one, but Vilasrao proved his mettle by remarkably controlling the situation in an intelligent way by creating a good rapport with the NCP.
Only in June 2002, when the Shetkari Kamgar Paksha(Peasants and Workers Party) backed out from the government, Vilasrao proved his prowess once again by bagging
the Confidence Vote in the parliament to retain power for Congress-NCP in the
In his quest to face a statewide calamity in a mature way and also
to tackle the worsened economic scenario in the government, Vilasrao had to rise up to many challenges. The first amongst them was the question of power generation, where the past government had contracted US based ENRON energy for building the power plant at Dabhol. It was a conspiracy to effect a major economic burden on the State exchequer as the Dabhol power company would provide power at the very high rate of Rs. 8.54 paise to the government and even then, the contract contained clauses that whether
or not the government took power from the company, it would still be required to remit huge amounts of taxpayer's hard earned money amounting to about Rs.75 crores per month to the power goliath. Not only was the contract a death nail for the Government but also a lifelong liability where the government would evidently risk shelling out huge
amounts to buy power at an escalated price.
In such circumstances, Vilasrao took the bold and visionary step to cancel the contract with Enron Dabhol Power Company. It was a risk that would also affect his political entity but Vilasrao, thinking of the greater interests of his beloved Maharashtra, took
the plunge. Thus, thanks to his timely and thoughtful interception, Maharashtra Government could wisely retract itself from an impending financial crisis.
In June 2001, a National level Conference of Chief Ministers held at Hyderabad was organized under the direction of then Rural Development Minister Shri Venkaiyya Naidu, where issues like Rural Self Employment schemes were the focal point. At this prestigious event, many leading CMs including Andhra Pradesh's Dr Chandrababu Naidu, TN's Smt Jayalalitha and Madhya Pradesh's Shri Digvijay Singh and many others came together to address the issues facing the nation's farmers and rural scenario and many felt the light of the poor farmers was solely linked to their dependence on excessive loans. At this time, it was only Vilasrao who, speaking in exquisite English, took a stand in favour of loan-affected farmers by pointing out that the Government spends crores on supporting the encouraging SMEs and small industries but does not pay heed to the question of farmer's loans – because of which the farmers have no choice but to turn to landlords and moneylenders, who exploit their situation and usurp their resources to the hilt.
He said that the central government worries a lot about the loans given to small time laborers but does not raise an eyelid, when loans aggregating 48,000 crores sanctioned to 7000 big time players turn to bad debts. Vilasrao asked the gathering of CMs as to what was the reason for such government apathy towards farmers and small workers. A well known and big player will easily get a bank loan running to crores but the poor man asking for financial aid must offer his only land as a collateral. When will the NDA government change such a biased approach ? This was Vilasrao's question to the honorable gathering of Chief Ministers who had assembled on that occasion.
After this incident, Vilasrao was looked upon in high esteem by one and all, as a leader with his heart in the right place and one, who was innately concerned and committed to the cause of the commonest citizenry in his State.
Vilasrao's attachment to the cause of farmer's welfare was not mere oratory. This was proved in the very first year of his Chief Ministership, where he allocated government grants worth Rs.1300 crores aimed at farmers' and agricultural development projects. This was a historic first for Maharashtra's farmer community as no other CM had helped further their cause in such a big way.
Another instance, where Vilasrao was called upon to prove his worth as Maharashtra's able Chief Minister, was the challenging time when the government coffers were empty during the festive occasion of Diwali 1999. As is the tradition, the government employees put forth a request for Diwali bonus and looking at the bad economic condition, it was simply not possible to issue any bonus to government employees that year. In a bid to avoid a confrontation between the workers and government departments, Vilasrao took the workers in confidence and personally apprised them of the situation. Thanks to his interception, the government staff worked without a Diwali bonus in Year 1999-2000, though soon after when the economic situation improved in the next year, Vilasrao rewarded them with a bonus. In this way, Vilasrao rose gracefully to the situation and used his innate maturity to nip a potential problem in the bud. From pacifying government employees to solving problems of the common man, Vilasrao has always adopted a pro-citizen stand as against a pro-government stand and that has contributed well to the success of his decisions.
In October 2000, the BJP Government had completed five years under the leadership of Shri Atalbihari Vajpayee and the same year, the Congress-NCP government under the leadership of Vilasrao had also completed one year of successful operation. All over the State there was a natural comparison and debate over the effectiveness of both these coalition governments and as a result, Vilasrao's able leadership and mature management won the appreciation and accolades from across the country.
Another tense and challenging moment in his career that Vilasrao faced during those days was the herculean task of having to arrest Shivsena Supremo. It was known to him that arresting the Shivsena leader could create havoc in Maharashtra and jeopardize public peace. However, with great caution and display of leadership, Vilasrao was able to execute the arrest with the calm cooperation of his Deputy Chief Minister and Home Minister Shri Chhagan Bhujbal in a way that did not disturb the law and order situation in the state. However, not being one to take political differences personally, Vilasrao was first in expressing his thankfulness to Shri Balasaheb about 5 years later, when with the support of Shivsena, Congress veteran Smt Pratibhatai Patil was elected President of India. Vilasrao personally visited the Shivsena Supremo at his residence to express his thanks on behalf of the Congress Party.
Apart from these, Vilasrao had to address the three major issues of power, water and unemployment in the State which had deteriorated by enormous proportions. Faced
with a recessionary climate on one hand and a fast depleting exchequer on the other, it was very difficult to manage an economy, but the level headed stalwart that Vilasrao is – he successfully sailed through tough weathers to tide over difficult times and emerge successful as Maharashtra's CM between 1999-2003.