Political shake-out

Print edition : January 02, 2009

Heads rolled in New Delhi and Maharashtra as the Congress scurried to retrieve lost ground.

in New Delhi in Mumbai

Ashok Chavan being greeted by outgoing Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh (left) after he was sworn in as Chief Minister in Mumbai on December 8.-SHIRISH SHETE/PTI

THE Chief Minister and the Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra and the Union Home Minister have been replaced after the dastardly terrorist attacks in Mumbai from November 26 to 29. Does this action signify a new determination and political will on the part of the Central government to counter the terror threat? This was the question asked in Parliament, when it convened on December 10, and outside.

The political class, including some sections of the ruling Congress as well as the other constituents of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), overwhelmingly believe the answer is no. Parties of the Opposition, such as those in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and of the Left, pointed out that the resignations of Shivraj Patil as Union Home Minister and Vilasrao Deshmukh as Maharashtra Chief Minister were, as corrective measures, too little, too late.

A number of Congress leaders from across the country also admit, albeit sotto voce, that the responsibility for the failures in fighting terrorism cannot be confined to the two Maharashtra leaders. This is despite the fact that the sentiment against Shivraj Patil had been growing for sometime now. Long before the Mumbai terrorist attack happened and the Congress Working Committee (CWC) met on November 29 to consider its implications, there was a growing sense within large sections of the Congress leadership that Shivraj Patil should be removed as Union Home Minister. The blasts in New Delhi on September 13 and the series of terrorist incidents that followed in various parts of the country had only strengthened this feeling.

Many a Congress leader pointed out in private conversations that the continuation of Patil as Home Minister was tantamount to a huge disservice to the country and its internal security. Still, between the middle of September and the last week of October no Congress leader made bold to raise the issue either in public or with the high command.

However, at the November 29 CWC meeting, which took up the issue of internal security failures, there was a significant change in the mood. During the three-hour meeting Shivraj Patil came under fire from a cross-section of leaders, including P. Chidambaram, who succeeded Shivraj Patil as Home Minister; Kapil Sibal; Kamal Nath; and Karan Singh.

Significantly, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son and party general secretary Rahul Gandhi refused to come to Patils defence. In fact, Rahul Gandhi reportedly even likened the terrorist attack to somebody walking into your house, slapping you and getting away with it.

Other speakers, such as Chidambaram and Sibal, highlighted the internal security failures in sharp terms but reportedly refrained from holding Shivraj Patil personally responsible for them. However, veteran leader Karan Singh bluntly told Patil that it was time for him to go.

Patil apparently came up with a feeble defence, offering statistics to claim that the number of civilians killed in terror-related incidents during the UPAs tenure was much lower than the casualty figures during the NDA regime. He also added that he had his resignation letter in his pocket and was ready to submit it to the Prime Minister the moment the party decided so.

The offer was received with stoic silence even by Sonia Gandhi. Later, Defence Minister A.K. Antony stated that he took responsibility for the failure of the Navy to stop the terrorists who came through the sea route. He also offered to resign but the suggestion was immediately struck down by a number of leaders at the meeting. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also apparently followed suit but was expressly told not to think in terms of such drastic measures. The sequence of events clearly sent the message to Patil. He had fallen from grace.

Following this, Patil sent in his resignation the next day and the Congress immediately sought to make political capital out of it. The partys spokesperson, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, pointed out that though the number of incidents of terror was larger during the NDA rule, the then Home Minister, L.K. Advani, never thought of owning responsibility and resigning. Even after an attack on Parliament House, the top-most leader of the NDA now [Advani] held on to power. But the Congress has been sensitive to public opinion and has a culture of respecting peoples sentiments, Singhvi said.

Even before Shivraj Patils resignation, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), a UPA constituent, had moved out its Deputy Chief Minister and Home Minister in Maharashtra, R.R. Patil, from his position. Singhvi highlighted this, too, as an instance of how the UPA as a whole was more responsive than the NDA to public sentiments.

However, the subjective motivations of the Congress in fixing responsibility did come to the fore. Almost all the senior security officials, including National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan and Union Home Secretary Madhukar Gupta, were left untouched in the so-called corrective action.

P. Chidambaram replaced Shivraj Patil as Home Minister.-SANTOSH HIRLEKAR/PTI

Even Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh was removed after much hesitation. The period of hesitation was marked by intense lobbying to retain Deshmukh somehow. By all indications, sections of the Congress leadership considered close to the party president herself were involved in this lobbying.

Deshmukh had to come up with an act of extreme indiscretion to be moved out of office finally. The proverbial last nail in the coffin apparently was the conducted tour of the Taj Mahal hotel that Deshmukh offered to film director Ram Gopal Varma during his official visit to the site after the 60-hour siege was over.

The public, long dissatisfied with the Chief Ministers poor performance, raised the pitch of the protests, but the Chief Minister was still confident of staying on. Even after R.R. Patil resigned, Deshmukh clung on until he made the mistake of taking his actor-son and Ram Gopal Varma with him. He defended his action, but finally resigned on December 3.

In the immediate aftermath of Deshmukhs resignation, many names were mentioned as his replacement. The ones that cropped up more often were of former Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, Prithviraj Chavan, Patangrao Kadam, Balasaheb Vikhe Patil and Dilip Walse Patil.

Ultimately, the choice of Ashok Chavan bridged all the gaps. He is not stained by any scam. His family background his father S.B. Chavan was Union Home Minister and twice Chief Minister of Maharashtra made him an ideal candidate. He is educated; he holds an MBA degree. He was the Industries Minister in the outgoing Ministry and under him Maharashtra had received the highest amount of foreign direct investment among the States. Most importantly, he was acceptable to the NCP as well.

The one person who was the most hopeful of getting the job but was not named at all was Narayan Rane. The former Shiv Sainik who joined the Congress in 2005 is still fuming from what he says was a betrayal. Rane has maintained that he had struck a deal with the Congress that he would bring in a certain number of MLAs and be rewarded for this with the chief ministership.

The Congress version of this varies. Sometimes the party denies the deal altogether and sometimes says Rane did not bring in the required numbers. At any rate, it has not stopped Rane from waving his hand desperately every time there is an opportunity. He first did this some months ago when he attempted a coup of sorts on Vilasrao Deshmukh. It failed, and Rane was in the doghouse for a while.

This latest attempt was no different. Sensing an opportunity, Rane went into high gear, but once again used tactics that the party frowned upon. The Congress high command suspended him on disciplinary grounds, saying he was making public statements that lowered the prestige of the party. At a press conference at his official residence, a blase Rane said he did not mind being suspended because it might be the route to become the Chief Minister (a reference to Deshmukhs suspension from the party 11 years ago). Rane claimed the support of 48 MLAs and said Ashok Chavan had the backing of just 38 MLAs.

Shivraj Patil.-SUBHAV SHUKLA/PTI

Despite his suspension, Rane has hung on in the fight, saying he was made to pay the price for his honesty in taking a stand against industrialists, specifically in land deals involving Videocon and the Wakf Board. In fact, he said Congress president Sonia Gandhis political secretary, Ahmed Patel, along with some industrialists prevented him from being appointed Chief Minister. There is no doubt that Rane will continue to be a thorn in the Congress side.

Chavan will certainly not get a dream team with which he can magic wand away the ills of the State. His primary goal is to keep the Congress-NCP alliance afloat and every move he makes will be aimed at keeping his government stable until the Assembly elections in 2009. In effect, this meant that Ministries would have to be juggled to accommodate new Ministers.

Though Rane claimed to be unconcerned about his suspension, he was canny enough to push for positions for his supporters in the new Cabinet. Indeed, given his fragile position, Rane has managed to maintain a fair degree of strength. He lost only one MLA in the fracas.

Ashok Kale, a former Shiv Sainik from Kopargaon who had followed Rane to the Congress, decided to retrace his steps to the Sena. Kale said he was leaving the Congress not because of Rane but because of the poor leadership in the party.

Like Rane himself, Kale too believed that the Congress would fare better in the upcoming elections if Rane was given a free hand.

Apart from Chhagan Bhujbal who became the Deputy Chief Minister, 24 Cabinet Ministers and 13 Ministers of State were sworn in by Governor S.C. Jamir on December 9. Given the inner-party turbulence unleashed by Rane, two of his supporters were finally inducted into the Cabinet. Whether this would pacify Rane and his supporters and allow Chavan a smooth and constructive run in the early days in office is to be seen.

P. Chidambaram, who has replaced Shivraj Patil as Union Home Minister, and Ashok Chavan have a tough time ahead of them. The morale in the Union Home Ministry is said to be at an all-time low. According to many senior officials who spoke to Frontline on the condition of anonymity, systems of reporting on internal security matters and the collating of information received from different security and intelligence agencies had been messed up in a big way during the Patil regime.

There are also whispers about the manner in which Patil upset the hierarchy among various security agencies. This apparently even went to the extent of refusing an audience to senior officials who had vital information to pass on to the political leadership. The new Home Minister will have quite a task streamlining the various arms of the Ministry and making them effective and efficient. Chidambarams first steps, including the follow-up of the Mumbai investigations, have been deemed satisfactory by a large number of security analysts and Home Ministry officials.

In Maharashtra, Chavan, apart from streamlining the administration, will have to walk the political tightrope. He has to bind the Congress-NCP alliance so that it is strong enough by the time elections are declared. Besides, he has to deal with the immediate issue of the security of the State, especially of Mumbai. And these concerns are just recent additions to the problems that Maharashtra is already mired in.

Chavan had a rocky start. First, he had to battle Rane. Then he had to find ministerships for some of Ranes men. And finally, he was expected to run the State with a deputy who was thrown out from the same position previously because of his alleged involvement in the Telgi stamp paper scam, which has serious security ramifications.

If Chavan had followed tradition and named Chhagan Bhujbal the Home Minister, it would have flown in the face of all political sense. As it happened, Jayant Patil of the NCP, a former Finance Minister, was given the Home portfolio (Bhujbal got his earlier portfolio of Public Works).

Throughout the turmoil in Maharashtra, the BJP and the Shiv Sena remained strangely silent. A BJP source said the party did not wish to be seen as deriving mileage from the tragedy that had struck the city. He added: In any case, the Congress and the NCP will do the work for us. They will expose their inabilities over the coming months and people will make the right choice during the elections.

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