Feeling vulnerable

Published : Apr 27, 2002 00:00 IST

The Democratic Front government in Maharashtra is faced with the prospect of instability, but bickerings within the Opposition ensure its survival.

IN its third year in power, the Democratic Front (D.F.) government in Maharashtra, headed by Vilasrao Deshmukh, is going through its most vulnerable period so far. In the 288-member Assembly, the D.F. holds 148 seats - a slim majority, which has been threatened severely during the past six months. The main Opposition, the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance, has a strength of 125, independents hold 12 seats, and two seats are held by the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

The government suffered a setback on March 19 when two MLAs of the CPI(M) withdrew their support, stating that the two major constituents of the ruling coalition, the Congress(I) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), ignored smaller parties and took anti-people decisions. There was no immediate threat to the government as the CPI(M) is supporting the D.F. from the outside. But the withdrawal of support meant that the D.F. could no longer rely on the compulsions of coalition politics when it came to voting. In October 2001, the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) withdrew its support to the D.F. after two of its MLAs defected to the NCP.

A few days after the withdrawal of support by the CPI(M), the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP), with five seats, and the Janata Dal (Secular), with two seats, also threatened to withdraw their support. Neither carried out the threat, but what is notable in the situation that has emerged is the extent of power that a small party like the PWP has come to wield over the D.F. Recognising its strength, the PWP too has been playing a bargaining game.

The political elbowing started with the civic elections. The coastal district of Raigad has been a PWP stronghold. Its 19 members constituted the largest single group in the Zilla Parishad of 61 members. However, the Shiv Sena candidate was elected President of the Zilla Parishad. The PWP alleges that its defeat was engineered by the NCP's Sunil Tatkare, Minister of State for Urban Development at that time. According to the PWP, Tatkare encouraged NCP members of the Zilla Parishad to vote for the Shiv Sena nominee. In return, the NCP candidate was elected vice-president. The PWP termed this an act of "betrayal" and threatened withdrawal of its support unless Tatkare was dropped from the Council of Ministers. For the Chief Minister, it was a choice between two evils. On the one hand, rejecting the PWP's demand meant a loss of majority support and a possible bid by the Opposition to form the government. On the other, giving in to the PWP's demand meant facing the ire of the NCP.

As the PWP served a 24-hour ultimatum, the Chief Minister accepted its demand, especially in view of the withdrawal of support by the CPI(M) a few days earlier. The loss of support of the five PWP members would have reduced the D.F. government's strength to 143, which is two seats short of a simple majority.

However, the decision to remove Tatkare met with severe opposition from within the ranks of the NCP because he is seen as being responsible for enabling the NCP to consolidate its base in the Konkan region. Moreover, within the NCP there is a section that is opposed to Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal and it is expected that his role in Tatkare's dismissal will be used as an excuse to hit out at him. Bhujbal's detractors in the NCP said that Tatkare's political contributions to the party were not recognised. Bhujbal defended his acceptance of the resignation letter saying that he had to prevent the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance from returning to power.

Despite being a major constituent of the D.F., the NCP has chosen to support the Shiv Sena or the BJP in at least five civic body or zilla parishad elections. "It would seem that Mr. Sharad Pawar still follows his one-point programme of defeating his old partner (the Congress)," said a Congress leader, who pointed out that both Deshmukh and Bhujbal had agreed that the Congress and the NCP would cooperate with each other in those zilla parishads and civic bodies where neither had an advantage. This agreement was adhered to only in the Ulhasnagar civic elections.

The rift is being widened by the byelection to the Maharashtra Legislative Council, where the contest for the seat that was held by the late Arun Mehta is between the NCP and the Janata Dal(Secular). The NCP claims that the seat should go to its candidate, since Mehta had supported the party. In what is seen as a bid to isolate the NCP in State politics, the Shiv Sena-BJP combine is also expected to support the Janata Dal(Secular) candidate.

The Opposition is, of course, watching keenly the turmoil within the D.F. Two and a half years ago, when the D.F. government was sworn in, the Shiv Sena's Narayan Rane, who is now the Leader of the Opposition, promised his party president Bal Thackeray that he would topple the government. However, the Shiv Sena-BJP has had problems of its own. One is of course the not-so-easy task of engineering the defection of at least seven D.F. members. Also, in order to reach the halfway mark, the Opposition will have to lure independents with promises of ministerial positions and other favours. Political observers say that this is the only option for the Opposition since it is unlikely that the PWP will enter into an alliance with either the Shiv Sena or the BJP.

Both the Shiv Sena and the BJP too have in-house problems. The most recent manifestation of the cracks in the Shiv Sena was the manner in which an announcement was made of Union Power Minister Suresh Prabhu's resignation. After much confusion, both Prabhu and the Shiv Sena spokesperson denied any resignation. A former BJP office-bearer said: "It was just one more display of nerves by Bal Thackeray who likes to keep his Ministers on their toes, especially those who do not pay him obeisance regularly. Suresh Prabhu was seen as moving away from the Shiv Sena. He is not a rabble-rouser in Parliament, unlike other Shiv Sainiks. So he became suspect for a while." Political observers say that intra-party politics and the emergence of a new culture within the Shiv Sena were also responsible for the resignation episode. The other public showdown was between the two Shiv Sena scions - Raj, Thackeray's nephew, and Uddhav, Thackeray's son. The power struggle between the two was resolved with Uddhav being informally anointed as Thackeray's successor.

The State BJP is also going through a bad patch. Politicking on the basis of caste has caused rifts within the party. In March, senior leader and former Rural Development Minister Anna Dange resigned from the party, alleging that cliques within the party were splintering it. He said that mid-level functionaries had usurped the decision-making powers.

Dange is not the first person in the party to express discontent. The actions of two other leaders point to emerging divisions based on caste. Suryabhan Wahadne Patil, a senior leader and former BJP State president, along with former Union Minister Jaisingh Gaikwad, accused Union Minister Pramod Mahajan and BJP national vice-president Gopinath Munde of sidelining Marathas in the BJP. Recently, Wahadne had presided over a meeting of Maratha leaders in Shirdi. Groupism runs so deep in the BJP that Gaikwad even shared a platform with NCP chief Sharad Pawar, a Maratha.

At the root of the turmoil in the BJP are renominations. Wahadne wanted to be renominated to the Rajya Sabha. Dange wanted a fourth term in the Legislative Council. However, Wahadne lost out to Ved Prakash Goyal whom the BJP chose since it could nominate only one person. Dange lost to Nitin Gadkari, the all-powerful former Minister who holds the tumultous Vidharbha region for the BJP.

Thus, despite the D.F.'s vulnerability, the Opposition is unable even to make a bid to topple the government. Now, if any serious bid were to become successful, it should be supported by discontent in the ruling coalition.

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