The rise of Shinde

Print edition : February 14, 2003
in Mumbai

Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde.-SEBASTIAN D'SOUZA/AFP

WHEN the Congress(I) high command decided to pull up its socks, Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh was the first to be given the boot. Fearing that the tide is turning against the party, a jittery Congress(I) president decided to replace him with Sushil Kumar Shinde, a senior leader. Shinde is the first Dalit Chief Minister of Maharashtra

Vilasrao Deshmukh was thus the first casualty of the Congress(I)'s post-Gujarat performance review.

Other Congress(I) Chief Ministers such as Rajasthan's Ashok Gehlot have survived, possibly because Assembly elections in those States are due earlier than in Maharashtra. Even Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee president Shankarsinh Vaghela retains his post, although he offered to resign after the party's defeat. The high command has been vague about why Deshmukh was singled out for removal at this point in time. His governance failures were no doubt too glaring to go unnoticed. But it is unclear how Shinde will be able to make any difference just 18 months before the State is due to go to the polls, in 2004.

Deshmukh's dismissal came at the end of a year full of setbacks for the Congress(I) in the State. The party has been unhappy with him for a long time. But his detractors took advantage of the high command's post-Gujarat jitters to go in for the kill. However, party insiders insist that the decision to replace Deshmukh was taken much before the Gujarat elections. "We were waiting till after the election because we didn't want to create any instability in a neighbouring State," one of them said.

The Chief Minister had his first setback in the zilla parishad elections in early 2002, in which the Congress got fewer votes than its main ally in the Democratic Front (D.F.) government, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). A Congress insider said: "The NCP captured a larger share of the votes (29 per cent ) in the elections as compared to the Congress (24 per cent). In the Vidhan Sabha elections, we were ahead with 27 per cent, while the NCP had 22 per cent. Ever since that defeat, there was talk of replacing the Chief Minister." The conflict between Deshmukh and Govindrao Adik, the president of the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC), grew, and veteran party leader S.B. Chavan was brought in to act as a mediator between the two.

THE Congress(I)-NCP alliance's trial by fire occurred in June when the Opposition parties tried to topple Deshmukh's government. The Shiv Sena engineered the defection of independents who were allied with the ruling parties. After a long-drawn fiasco, during which legislators of the ruling coalition were taken to Bangalore and lodged in a hotel there, Deskhmukh managed to retain his majority in the Vidhan Sabha. The law barred defecting MLAs from voting in a confidence motion. Even after this close shave, Deshmukh managed to hold on to his position.

Recently Deshmukh was hot under the collar again when the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party, launched a mass campaign in Vidarbha, the State's cotton belt. It was directed against the government's decision to lower prices under the State's Monopoly Cotton Procurement Scheme. Public meetings held by the Opposition drew large crowds in this impoverished region, where more than 90 farmers committed suicide last year . Deshmukh's government was forced to bow to popular pressure and increase procurement prices. This backtracking embarrassed the Congress high command.

Probably the move that sealed Deshmukh's fate was an extravagant party that he threw for the premiere of his son's film acting debut. That lavish show at a time when the State was bankrupt annoyed the high command. However, NCP leader Sharad Pawar's 60th birthday bash in late 2001, which was much more garish, did not draw any significant criticism in either political circles or the media.

Although the NCP did not have much of a say in the matter, its top leadership seems to have supported the change of the Chief Minister.

Shinde, who is a strong Sonia Gandhi loyalist, is also close to Sharad Pawar. Son of a farmer from Solapur, Shinde rose from being a court peon to a police sub-inspector and then to a lawyer. Sharad Pawar encouraged him to join politics. Ironically, Shinde and Deshmukh had in 1991 come together in a bid to overthrow Pawar from the chief ministership. The wily Pawar squelched their coup before it could get very far. Later, both leaders reconciled with Pawar.

Some Congressmen complain that Deshmukh pandered too much to their alliance partner. But others allege that Pawar was unhappy with Deshmukh for not giving sufficient sops to his stronghold in western Maharashtra's sugar belt, which is the most prosperous part of rural Maharashtra.

On the contrary, Deshmukh has been criticised for being soft in dealing with scams in the sugar industry. Deshmukh was recently at the centre of a controversy for having granted State government guarantees for loans of Rs.1,500 crores given to more than 100 sugar cooperatives. Many of these, controlled by powerful politicians, are already bankrupt. Deshmukh's decision came soon after the State government got into trouble for having stood surety for earlier loans to sugar cooperatives. A part of Mantralaya, the State Secretariat in Mumbai, was attached by the Debt Recovery Tribunal in connection with a state-backed loan given to the Sindhkheda cooperative society in Dhule, which is controlled by NCP Minister Hemant Deshmukh. The recent guarantees were sanctioned at a time when the State's finances were in the red, with a huge debt of around Rs.74,000 crores.

Vilasrao Deshmukh's better decisions have not, however, been given due recognition. He set up the Kurdukar committee to investigate irregularities in the deal with Enron and the Dabhol Power Company (DPC). He cancelled the Maharashtra State Electricity Board's (MSEB) contract with the DPC, saving crores of rupees for the State.

Shinde has promised to improve governance within three months. The Congress is hoping that Shinde, an experienced administrator, will deliver. Given the fact that he is the only Minister to have presented nine budgets in the Maharashtra Assembly, the high command hopes he would work some magic on State's bankrupt treasury. Shinde, the Member of Parliament from Solapur, was the party's candidate in the vice-presidential elections last year.

The Congress hopes that Shinde, known to be an extremely affable person, will be able to walk the tightrope better than Deshmukh did - uniting party members and keeping the NCP happy as well.

Shinde's appointment has upset the dominance of Marathas in Maharashtra politics. With Chaggan Bhujbal (who belongs to the Other Backward Classes) staying on as Deputy Chief Minister, the powerful Maratha lobby now feels insecure. However, Congress leaders in Delhi feel that having a Dalit as Chief Minister will improve the party's image. "It may not translate directly into votes but it will boost the party's pro-poor image," said a Congress insider.

The high command hopes that Shinde will be able to secure another victory for the party in the next Assembly elections.

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