Clash of ambitions

Print edition : September 26, 2008

Revenue Minister Narayan Ranes resignation drama exposes the chaotic nature of Maharashtra politics.

in Mumbai

Narayan Rane, A file photograph.-PTI

WHEN Maharashtras Revenue Minister Narayan Rane stormed out of a Cabinet meeting on August 6, the rumour mill went into top gear. Stories began to go around that Rane would resign his ministership, that he would leave the Congress party, that he would split the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) alliance, and that he would float his own party. Rane did submit his resignation soon after the Cabinet meeting, but he withdrew it 18 days later.

Ranes angry outburst at the Cabinet meeting was prompted by the allotment of land to the Videocon group for the construction of a thin film transistor liquid crystal display unit at Navi Mumbai. The unit, when completed, will be one of the five such in the world. Rane accused the government of undervaluing the land and of opposing a proposal to call for tenders. He said that 100 hectares of land was sold to Videocon by City and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra Limited (CIDCO) for Rs.350 crore when the market value was Rs.3,500 crore. The government, however, denied the charge and defended its action.

But political observers feel that the ethics of the Videocon deal is not the real reason for Ranes outburst. Rane is not unfamiliar with such deals; he indeed has two cases of transgressions in land deals pending against him. One case, relating to a piece of land near the Mumbai airport, is before the Bombay High Court. In the other case, concerning a Rs.224-crore land deal in the central Mumbai area of Kurla, Rane allegedly waived over Rs.110 crore that was due to the government.

Ranes reasons for calling his own government to account seem to be more personal than anything else. By levelling accusations, he has succeeded in hitting out at the NCP as well as his former party, the Shiv Sena, both of which he does not have cordial relations with. Nakul Patil, CIDCO Chairman, is a senior NCP leader. Videocon group chairman Venugopal Dhoots younger brother, Rajkumar Dhoot, is a Sena Member of the Rajya Sabha.

Ranes resignation blew the lid off the disquiet in the Congress-NCP partnership. Suddenly, the potential for political chaos was there for all to see. A question that was asked was whether Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh would risk taking away the Revenue portfolio from Rane. This would have meant that Rane would retaliate by quitting the party and taking the Konkan legislators with him. Alternatively, the proposed Cabinet expansion meant that perhaps Deshmukh held the aces there would be many Members of the Legislative Assembly waiting for key posts and Rane may not have found it easy to lure them away.

If Rane were to quit, where would he have gone? On the face of it, it is unlikely that he would have joined the NCP, considering that in the Konkan, and especially in his bastion of Sindhudurg, the Shiv Sena and the NCP are at loggerheads. Even though Rane is officially no longer a Shiv Sainik, he would find it difficult to forget his political upbringing in this matter.

However, the very nature of Indian politics makes anything possible. A meeting between the NCP leader Praful Patel and Rane led to speculation that Rane would change sides and contribute another episode to the mercenary history of the Congress-NCP partnership.

The expedient nature of the Congress-NCP alliance was at its clearest during the December 2007 local body elections. When the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party fought like a team, the Congress and the NCP fought the Mumbai civic body elections separately. In fact, the present strength of the Opposition is partially because of the fractured nature of the Congress-NCP relationship.

If the latter two had fought the elections unitedly, the chances of their winning were quite good. However, much of the credit in such a situation would have gone to Rane. Mumbai may be controlled by the Sena, but Ranes strengths as a former Shiv Sainik could have swayed many votes in favour of the Congress. Such a victory would have made him a strong contender for the Chief Ministers post, and Congress and NCP leaders were wary of this. So the two parties decided to fight the election separately and thus practically handed victory over to the Sena-BJP combine.

In an astounding example of the politics of convenience, the NCP actually teamed up with the Sena-BJP for the Pune municipal body elections. The trio won, with the result that Pune now has an NCP Mayor and a Shiv Sena Deputy Mayor.

Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh with AICC general secretary Margaret Alva and Mumbai Regional Congress Committee president Kripashankar Singh (centre) in Mumbai on August 30.-PTI

Ranes resignation exposed the chaotic nature of Maharashtra politics. A logical conclusion would have been for the Sena-BJP to further the disarray in the ruling combine after the resignation. But though the BJP was ready to take on the government, the Sena preferred to hold back. The Sena was in a dilemma shouting down the Videocon deal would have been seen as lending support to Rane, an erstwhile Sainik. It could have also been viewed as being an anti-growth stand. The Videocon project promised good employment opportunities and this fitted in with the Senas election promises. Hence it chose to support the government instead of its coalition partner.

With the spotlight on Rane, the trials of Chief Minister Deshmukh went largely unnoticed. The tussle between Deshmukh and Rane is an open one. Indeed, when Rane resigned, he said that the Congress could not perform well under Deshmukh. The public nature of the complaint reportedly angered senior Congress leaders, who saw it as insubordination.

The Congress reaction to the resignation is believed to have shaken Rane. It was neither accepted nor rejected. He was not dropped from the Cabinet nor was he mollified with additional responsibilities. He had, as one BJP functionary joked, been given the Congress special a political Gulag meant to cut overambitious party members to size.

The refusal to accept his resignation was also a tacit admission that the Congress needed him. Three years ago, when he quit the Sena, he had promised to bring 21 MLAs with him to the Congress. Though ultimately only seven followed him, Rane continues to hold sway in Sindhudurg. For the Congress he is a bulwark against NCP dominance in the Konkan region.

The main reason for Ranes resignation is believed to be his desire to become Chief Minister. He had nurtured this dream ever since the mid-1990s when the Sena-BJP was in power in Maharashtra. He had a brief period of glory in 1999 when he succeeded in toppling Shiv Sena Chief Minister Manohar Joshi and becoming Chief Minister; but his tenure at the top lasted only eight months until the State went to the polls. The Sena-BJP lost the 1999 elections and the Congress returned to power with Deshmukh at the helm.

Continuing his bid for power, Rane tried another tack he told his Sena bosses that he was being marginalised within the party. It was a thinly veiled complaint against Uddhav Thackeray, who was being given more powers by his father and Sena supremo Bal Thackeray. Rane felt the Sena owed him more for his loyalty, but Thackerays dynastic urges dictated otherwise. Rane then decided to quit the party.

In 2005, he joined the Congress. He was made Revenue Minister much to the ire of older Congressmen. His upward mobility in the Congress spurred him on to make fresh attempts to grab the Chief Ministers post. It is unlikely that this failed bid will put a halt to his ambitions. Indeed, it is more likely that his fighting spirit, well honed by the Sena, has received a fillip now.

Ranes return to his ministerial duties is a reminder to the Chief Minister that he has a delicate balancing act to perform, that he is not the supreme authority in the State Congress, and that his personal likes and dislikes are of little political consequence.

Deshmukh always had to walk a fine line when it came to intra-party politics. For a long time, he could not reshuffle or expand his Cabinet because he did not have the support of either Margaret Alva, the All India Congress Committee general secretary in charge of Maharashtra, or Prabha Rau, the former president of the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC) until recently.

Deshmukhs star shone only after he obliged the Congress high command by engineering the abstentions of two Shiv Sena Members of Parliament during the United Progressive Alliance governments trust vote in July. In gratitude, the candidates he suggested for the key posts of MPCC President and Mumbai Regional Congress Committee chief were approved. He also got the nod for a Cabinet reshuffle and expansion. With more key posts waiting to be distributed, Deshmukhs political strength has increased.

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