11/26/2014 09:18 am ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

Murli Deora: The Last of India's Tammany Hall Chieftains

Murli Deora, who died of cancer at the age of 77 in Mumbai early Monday, was sui generis -- one of a kind, and arguably the last of his kind.

He towered over Indian politics without smothering the landscape with his ubiquitous presence. And, in the classic mold of Tammany Hall pols, he reached out to his constituents in their time of need, helped as much as he could -- which was a lot, whether in cash or housing or school admissions -- and asked for nothing in return. Mr. Deora didn't have to plead for votes in his native Mumbai: he always had a "Made-for-Murli" bank of grateful voters.

For a politician affiliated with the Indian Congress Party, his outreach did not stop at his vast country's borders. He always believed that it was important for a developing nation like India to cultivate lasting friends abroad; such friendships often translated into more development aid and, equally important, good will for India whose leaders like pro-Soviet Prime Minister Indira Gandhi didn't exactly engender warmth and empathy from Western states.

As a young student, he once spent time in the Washington office of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, Democrat of New York. Friends noticed that, upon his return, Murli had a bit of a Boston twang in his accent; and as Senator Kennedy often did, he would put one leg on a chair, a hand on his chin, and look as though he was in deep thought. Then he would quote President John F. Kennedy: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

Those words didn't exactly resonate powerfully in a country where public service was usually undertaken with a view toward personal gain. As chief of what was then the Bombay Pradesh Congress Committee, and treasurer of the national Congress, Murli was not beyond extending his hand for the party. But at a personal level, he was incorruptible; he had already made millions in business by the time he entered elective politics. He would often say, "I'm in politics because I want to, not because I need to."

Still, there was no question that Murli enjoyed the crowd's adulation; he enjoyed being feted; he enjoyed being garlanded; he enjoyed the company of India's high and mighty (many of whom had benefited from his largesse). And, most of all, he enjoyed grooming one of his two sons, Milind, to join the political fray. Milind became a Member of Parliament and later was inducted into the cabinet of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Murli Deora had created a political dynasty: he himself had served in Mr. Singh's government.

Perhaps more than any Indian politician of his generation, Murli was genuinely liked in public and private. That's because he had a good word for all, and extended a helpful hand to many. To be a politician means to serve -- and serve Murli did, in a land where ministers and bureaucrats often ignore the masses except during election time, where high officials expect their constituents to genuflect and undertake a thousand salaams before even being allowed to enter the corridors of power.

But Murli's door was always open. Petitioners, in Mumbai and Delhi, would besiege him. I often wondered about the source of this man's energy, this man who was totally vegetarian. "Yoga," he told me one day. Then, looking at my girth, he said, "Wouldn't be bad for you either."

You would never find placards or billboards with Murli's mug on them. He left that kind of exposure to the higher-ups of his party -- Indira, her sons Rajiv and Sanjay, and Rajiv's widow, Sonia Gandhi. But even as these leaders strutted around as the public face of the Congress, Murli was the man who tended to the political, financial and social infrastructure. In private, he was hugely entertaining about the ways and byways of politicians. But say this for Murli: he was never disloyal to the Nehrus and the Gandhis.

In the last few years, as technology came to drive politics more and more, Murli retreated to the backbenches of parliament. He was, after all, more comfortable working crowds than tapping keyboards. The very progress that Murli Deora worked so hard for had, in the end, left him behind. With his death, India's Tammany Hall has closed its doors for the last time.