Both R.R. Patil Chhagan Bhujbal quits as Mahrashtra's Deputy Chief Minister, but will the move help salvage the scam-tainted image of the Congress(I)-NCP coalition government in the State?in Mumbai
IN the drama that followed the resignation of Chhagan Bhujbal as the Deputy Chief Minister and Home Minister of Maharashtra, two issues were sidelined - the resignation's real reasons and its possible impact on the government in the State run by the Nationalist Congress Party-Congress(I) coalition, the Democratic Front (D.F.). Informed sources had told Frontline that Bhujbal was due to announce his decision to resign at the NCP's executive meeting on December 24. This indicates that the resignation was planned before and not, as claimed by Bhujbal, in reaction to the attack on the office of a television channel by NCP workers. In any case, the arguments against the official explanation seem to be more plausible than the official stand.
Bhujbal's troubles were exacerbated by the Opposition Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance's call for the government's resignation. Terming it a "non-functioning, non-performing government", Maharashtra State BJP president Gopinath Munde demanded that Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde write to the Special Investigation Team (SIT) probing the multi-crore stamp paper scam within 15 days asking that the other Ministers accused in the scam be named.
The BJP has also highlighted a 2002 incident when the Vilasrao Deshmukh government was on the verge of collapse after some Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) withdrew support. To prevent further defections, the MLAs were taken to a luxury resort in Bangalore. The Opposition has now linked the MLAs' trip to Bangalore to Abdul Karim Telgi, the prime accused in the scam, and his associates. The BJP demanded that the SIT should take note of this and investigate how the government was saved. Failing this, Munde said, the BJP would take to the streets in protest. Responding to the Sena-BJP's tirade, NCP spokesperson Praful Patel said that the stamp scam was in exsitence long before the D.F. government came to power.
Political observers point out that the forthcoming polls forced Bhujbal's hand. A Mantralaya (State Secretariat) official said: "The Opposition would have had a field day during the polls. Whether Bhujbal is actually involved in the stamp paper scam is not so much the issue at the moment. He is perceived as being involved and that is politically disastrous for the party. The NCP had no option but to remove him. He had become a liability at a time when the NCP could least afford one. For that matter he was also a liability for the Congress(I)." However, though Bhujbal has quit the Cabinet, he continues to be a vital member of the NCP and rumours indicate that he might be considered for the post of the NCP State president. At a recent media conference, NCP national president Sharad Pawar said: "Kaam karne wale ko target banate hai (The one who works well is targeted)." The NCP leader was responding to a question regarding Bhujbal's alleged involvement in the stamp paper scam. By stating that all those who work hard are invariably targeted, Pawar made his public position on Bhujbal clear. Pawar added: "I did not tell him to step down. He took responsibility for the attack and I gave him permission to step down."
Meanwhile, Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil and R.R. Patil have taken charge as the Deputy Chief Minister and Home Minister respectively. While R.R. Patil previously held the rural development, water supply and sanitation portfolios, Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil held the public works portfolio. Some minor reshuffling of other portfolios ensured that the other contenders, especially Madhukarrao Pichad and Ajit Pawar, did not feel disgruntled. Pichad, a tribal leader, continues to hold the tribal welfare portfolio. Ajit Pawar, Sharad Pawar's nephew, was given the rural development portfolio apart from the Krishna valley development project and horticulture portfolios, which he already held.
Apparently, caste played a significant role in the exercise. The NCP is a party with a strong support base in the Maratha community in western Maharashtra and its financial needs are largely met by Maratha sugar mill owners. Both R.R. Patil and Mohite-Patil belong to the community and their appointment in powerful positions has strengthened the NCP's hand in the government. Moreover, Pawar has also ensured that the key positions are not held by one man.
R.R. Patil enjoys a reputation for action-oriented decisions and efficiency. Also known for his unwavering loyalty to Pawar, R.R. Patil is expected to clean up the beleaguered Home Department and inject new life into the police force. The choice of Mohite-Patil, who like Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde hails from Solapur, for the Deputy Chief Minister's post was both a surprise and a shrewd political move. With their own network of cooperatives in Solapur, the Mohite-Patils are an influential family in western Maharashtra, traditionally a Maratha stronghold. Yet the family has played a divisive role in local and State politics as was apparent during the Lok Sabha byelection in Solapur in October 2003. More important, the byelection results proved that the relationship between the Congress(I) and the NCP in Maharashtra is one of mutual dependence.
The main contenders for the Solapur seat, vacated by Sushilkumar Shinde on assuming the office of Chief Minister, were Anandrao Deokate of the Congress(I) and Pratapsinh Mohite-Patil (brother of the new Deputy Chief Minister) of the BJP. Since Deokate had held the Solapur Assembly seat consistently for five terms (he vacated the Assembly seat for Shinde) it was expected that he would have no problem in retaining the seat for the Congress(I). However, he lost to Mohite-Patil by a huge margin of 1.22 lakh votes. The results stunned the Congress(I) since the Solapur Lok Sabha seat was regarded as a safe seat as it had invariably returned Congress(I) candidates.
The Congress(I) suspected the hand of the NCP, and specifically Pawar, in Deokate's defeat. In fact, Deokate himself came under a cloud because of his proximity to Pawar. Earlier, local Congress(I) workers had been irked by a photo of Deokate touching Pawar's feet and of his public announcement that he owed his ministerial berth to the NCP president. Further intrigue was added to the Solapur byelection by the fact that the two Mohite-Patil brothers were in opposing political camps and that their feud with the Chief Minister was well-known. It is believed that the feud played a role in Deokate's defeat.
The NCP, on the other hand, maintained that the common surname of the two brothers may have confused party workers, leading NCP workers to promote the BJP's candidate. It is common knowledge that Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil chose to go with the NCP only because Shinde was with the Congress(I). Yet Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil can hold his own in the party because, like Pawar, he too belongs to the Vasantdada Patil group of cooperative barons of western Maharashtra.
Only in the run-up to the next Assembly and Lok Sabha elections will it be clear whether the stamp paper scam will affect the relationship between the NCP and the Congress(I) or whether Pawar's political moves have paved the way for the removal of the suspicion and distrust between the allies.