Gopinath Munde’s death in a car accident early on Tuesday morning is a severe setback to the Bharatiya Janata Party in Maharashtra, as it looks ahead to assembly elections in later this year.

The newly appointed Union Minister for Rural Development was the BJP’s point man in the state for the just-concluded Lok Sabha elections, managing the alliance with the Shiv Sena and campaigning throughout the region. Instrumental in bringing the alliance 23 seats, Munde was rewarded for his party’s impressive performance in the state with a Cabinet berth. In fact Munde was already being talked about as the next chief minister of Maharashtra, even though the Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray had on Monday staked his claim to the position.

The BJP immediately put the Sena in its place. "The matter of leadership, of whether we will have a CM candidate and who it will be, has not been discussed in the BJP or with the Shiv Sena," BJP general secretary-in-charge of Maharashtra Rajiv Pratap Rudy told The Times of India. "We will begin to work out issues like seat-sharing soon.”

In previous polls, the Sena has been allotted the larger number of tickets. But this time, in light of the BJP’s strong showing in the Lok Sabha elections, it had hoped to bargain for more seats. The negotiations were to have been led by Munde, who was deputy chief minister when the Sena-BJP alliance won the state elections in 1995 and had good relations with Sena leaders.

With Munde’s passing, the BJP has lost its most effective mass leader in the state. A member of the Vanjara caste, which falls in the other backward caste category, Munde’s rise in the Brahmin-dominated state unit of the BJP was something of an anomaly, though he was helped by his close college friendship with Pramod Mahajan, whose sister he later married.

Munde was a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh but was no favourite of the top leadership of the organisation, who saw him as headstrong and uninterested in taking instructions. In fact his arch-rival in the Maharashtra BJP, Nitin Gadkari, had tried to scupper the alliance between Shiv Sena and the BJP by suggesting that Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena be brought on board. The fact that the Shiv Sena’s candidates did well, and the MNS’s candidates all lost their deposits, was vindication of Munde’s electoral nous and his deep knowledge of what makes Maharashtra tick.

Munde lived half his political life in the shadow of his rather domineering brother-in-law. Mahajan was considered the BJP’s national face from Maharashtra while Munde was the state-level politician. Relations between the two quickly became strained, and in 1998 Munde correctly predicted Mahajan would be defeated in the Lok Sabha elections. In the same year, Munde’s affair with a lavni dancer was exposed by an IAS officer, which made relations even frostier.

Yet after Mahajan’s death in 2006, Munde worked diligently for the party in Maharashtra, especially taking up the role that Mahajan performed often, as peace-broker between the BJP and Shiv Sena. Uddhav Thackeray was known to trust Munde more than he did Gadkari.

In the 1990s, one of Munde’s most significant political victories came against Sharad Pawar, then chief minister of the state. His campaign against the Dabhol project, a power plant being constructed by American power major Enron, saw him garner a great deal of support and cemented his reputation as a leader who looked out for the interests of the people of Maharashtra. But it was this very image that Munde found difficult to shed, and for many years it prevented his ascent up the leadership chain in the BJP. Even when he was made deputy leader of the BJP in the Lok Sabha, in 2009, he found it difficult to win over the people who matter.

Munde was more attached to Maharashtra, and after the BJP’s stunning victory in the Lok Sabha polls, he publicly declared his wish to become chief minister. With his passing, it is unclear if other leaders from the Maharashtra BJP unit such as state party president Devendra Fadnavis or BJP leader in the Legislative Council Vinod Tawde will be able to match Uddhav Thackeray’s appeal, should the Sena actually choose to run in the assembly elections.