A tussle in an alliance

Print edition : November 19, 2004

The Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party reach an agreement and the government is formed in Maharashtra, but the factors that led to the intense tussle remain a threat to the alliance.

in Mumbai

Outgoing Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, party observer Ghulam Nabi Azad and Chief Minister-designate Vilasrao Deshmukh in Mumbai.-VIVEK BENDRE

FOR 11 days the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) tried to checkmate each other on the formation of the government in Maharashtra. The NCP, with the greater number of seats, staked its claim to the Chief Minister's post. The Congress, afraid of the NCP's growing influence, refused and reminded the latter of its pre-election position that the chief ministership would be the Congress'. Confident of its strength, the NCP said if it did not get the right to lead the Ministry it would rather support a Congress-led government from outside. Then, all of a sudden, the announcement came that the post would go to the Congress and the NCP would get the post of Deputy Chief Minister, three additional ministerial berths, and two portfolios of its choice. The matter, said party spokespersons, was resolved to the satisfaction of both parties.

If the spokespersons are to be believed, one can assume that Sharad Pawar, the leader of the NCP, was not serious about the Chief Minister's post in the first place and that his demand for it was merely a ploy to get three extra ministerial positions. That, of course, is not the case. So what did happen during those 11 days and who were the winners and the losers?

The overriding impression is that Sharad Pawar's political prestige has suffered a blow. The question why he did not push for chief ministership though he had it going in his favour draws evasive answers. In the absence of any official explanation, a valid assumption would be that Sharad Pawar foresaw internecine battles within the NCP as a result of prominent members jockeying for the top post and let the Congress head the Ministry.

NCP president Sharad Pawar.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

There were six strong contenders in the NCP for the coveted post. They were Raosaheb Rajaram Patil, Chhagan Bhujbal, Padamsinh Patil, Jayant Patil, Ajit Pawar and Vijaysinh Mohite Patil. Ajit Pawar, Sharad Pawar's nephew, later withdrew apparently because he had the least support within the party. Each of the aspirants has strong lobbies backing him and could have fragmented the fledgling NCP if he chose to. So it is likely that the Maratha leader made a conscious decision to opt for long-term gains.

However, Sharad Pawar seems to have lost out in the Congress' decision to elect Vilasrao Deshmukh as the Chief Minister instead of the more pliable Sushilkumar Shinde, with whom he is known to have a working relationship as opposed to the fractious one he shares with Deshmukh. The well-known nature of the relationship is apparently what tilted the balance in Deshmukh's favour. By choosing him the Congress leadership has also expressed its concern about the growing strength of the NCP in the State. Apparently, the majority of Congress leaders endorsed Vilasrao Deshmukh's claim to the post with the aim to check the influence of the NCP. Given the NCP's strength of 71 MLAs to the Congress' 68, Congress leaders were adamant that a strong anti-Pawar Chief Minister was required to prevent the NCP from increasing its sphere of influence in Maharashtra. At the election of the Congress Legislature Party leader, 52 of the 68 legislators reportedly voted in favour of Vilasrao Deshmukh. The anti-Shinde sentiment stemmed from his inability to quash Sharad Pawar and the NCP.

The appointment of Vilasrao Deshmukh as Chief Minister and R.R. Patil as Deputy Chief Minister has come as a shot in the arm for Maratha-dominated politics in Maharashtra. But it could be a double-edged sword for this politically powerful community since it pits two strong Maratha leaders - Deshmukh and Pawar - against each other. The community, which was always at the forefront of politics in the State, lost out when Sushilkumar Shinde, a Dalit, was appointed Chief Minister 20 months ago, and Chhagan Bhujbal, an Other Backward Classes leader, as Deputy Chief Minister even before that. The stage seemed set for a further dilution of Maratha power with Shinde's proximity to Sonia Gandhi. However, his mild stand on Sharad Pawar and inability to lead the Congress to the top position in the elections and the overplaying of the Dalit card in the elections worked against him. It resulted in the sudden mobilisation of the Maratha lobby and made the Centre rush Digvijay Singh and Ghulam Nabi Azad to Mumbai to control tempers. Sensing success, the Maratha lobby upped the ante against Shinde, saying only a strong Maratha leader like Vilasrao Deshmukh would be able to contain the NCP.

The reappointment of Deshmukh is surprising. He was replaced as Chief Minister by Shinde in February 2003 on the grounds of having inefficiently managed the State. Considering that Patangrao Kadam and Gurudas Patil were also aspirants for the post of Chief Minister, it is not clear why the legislators chose Vilasrao Desmukh who had been `dethroned' just 20 months ago. Kadam, who was Industries Minister earlier, was considered eminently suitable for the top job.

An NCP source said that Vilasrao Deshmukh's keenness on infrastructure development also contributed to his successful candidature.

Since the formation of the NCP the Congress has lost a vast source of funds as most of the moneyed western Maharsahtra legislators joined the NCP. This meant that the Congress had to lean more on Mumbai-based sources for funds and the party's survival depended on keeping Mumbai voters happy. The NCP source said: "The Congress was aware that the NCP, which gets all its money from rural Maharashtra, specifically the western region, would concentrate on the issues relevant to that electorate. The Chief Minister's post was not just a matter of prestige but one that would decide whether the NCP's power in the future would increase at the cost of the Congress. This is what the Congress was keen to avoid and that is why they fought even more for the post."

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