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The death of Union Rural Development Minister Gopinath Munde in a road accident in Delhi today comes as a huge setback to the Maharashtra BJP, which is aiming to wrest the power from the Congress-NCP combine -- ruling the state since 1999 -- in the Assembly elections.
Munde, a leader with a mass base, was the face of the party in the state and played a crucial role in the performance of 'Mahayuti' (grand alliance of opposition parties in Maharashtra).
bagged 42 out of 48 Lok Sabha seats in the state.
Keen to expand the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance's base in western Maharashtra and North Maharashtra, the strongholds of the Congress-NCP, Munde brought into its fold Raju Shetty, the MP of Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghtana from Hatkanangale, and Mahadev Jankar of Rashtriya Samaj Paksh who had polled over 90,000 votes in Maadha against NCP chief Sharad Pawar in 2009.
Political observers say that Munde had the knack of recognising potential of workers, and provided them a right platform.
He was also instrumental in bringing NCP leader Sanjay Patil, a local rival of Home Minister R R Patil in Sangli district, into BJP. Patil, as the BJP candidate from Sangli Lok Sabha seat, a Congress bastion, trounced Pratik Patil, grandson of former Chief minister Vasantdada Patil.
In tribal-dominated Nandurbar, Munde roped in Heena Gavit, daughter of NCP minister Vijay Kumar Gavit, to contest against Congress veteran Manikrao Gavit who was seeking a tenth term in the Lok Sabha. Heena went on to win the seat.
Other prominent BJP leaders in Maharashtra may not be able to match up to Munde's mass appeal, political observers say.
Munde's rival in the state unit and now a Union Minister, Nitin Gadkari, may have emerged among the top leaders in the BJP in Narendra Modi regime, but he is not known as someone with a mass-base.
Devendra Phadanvis, the state BJP chief, is relatively a newcomer, while the influence and reach of Leader of Opposition in the Legislative Council Vinod Tawde among the party workers is limited to Mumbai and some urban areas.
It also remains to be seen how the ally Shiv Sena deals with the void in the alliance leadership, created by Munde's death.
State BJP had said recently that Assembly campaign would be led by Munde, but the decision on the Chief Minister will be taken after the election results.
On the other hand, Shiv Sena declared its president Uddhav Thackeray as the Sena-BJP's