An uneasy alliance

Print edition : October 22, 2004

The simmering rivalry between and within the Congress and the NCP come to the fore making it clear that it was political opportunism that kept their coalition going for five years.

in Mumbai

FIVE years in government has not improved the relations between the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Although the two parties declared that they would fight the elections as a unified front, the spate of rebellions only brought to the fore the simmering antagonism between and within the two parties. Factionalism in the Congress and the NCP is a matter of record, the only difference being that this time it was more public and more sharp than before.

Nationalist Congress Party leaders Chaghan Bhujbal and R.R. Patil (third from left), Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee chief Prabha Rau, and Republican Party of India president Ramdas Athvale at a joint press conference in Mumbai on September 24.-

Perhaps the most telling comment on the state of the Congress was made by Pradesh party chief Prabha Rau on September 30 when she said she had informed the central leadership that she would like to be relieved of the post on October 15, two days after the elections. Rau, who was appointed only recently to contain factionalism, described her term as vexing and the internal squabbles and groupism beyond control.

Political opportunism has always marked the run-up to elections, a fact illustrated during the seat-sharing talks. Seat-sharing was decided on the principle that the parties contest the seats they had won in 1999. Based on this, the Congress was allotted 157 seats, the NCP 124 and their coalition partners seven.

The seat-sharing talks gave rise to conflict when some candidates were asked to forfeit their constituencies. In all 117 aspirants from both parties opposed their non-inclusion in the final list. The NCP expelled 13 rebels, including State unit chief Babanrao Pachpute. The Congress expelled five.

Apart from accommodating the maximum number of candidates from both parties, the seat-sharing exercise was also meant to improve the combine's political strength in the regions of the State. For example, the Congress is strong in the Vidarbha region while the NCP has a solid foundation in western Maharashtra.

Western Maharashtra's six districts (Pune, Ahmednagar, Satara, Sangli, Solapur and Kolhapur) account for 26 per cent, that is, 75 of the 288 Assembly seats. While the NCP won 33 of these seats in 1999 the Congress won only 18. Keen to build a presence in Vidarbha, the NCP offered to exchange some of its coveted western Maharashtra seats with the Congress for those in Vidarbha. Thus it ran the risk of angering its own successful candidates in western Maharashtra who were asked to give up their seats to the coalition candidates. Consequently, those who were denied the ticket crossed over to other accommodating parties.

AHMEDNAGAR, in western Maharashtra's sugar rich region, exemplified the politics of convenience that has been the hallmark of this election. With the Congress-NCP fighting as a united front only a limited number of the ticket of either party could be distributed. The next line of action for most candidates was to make decisions based on local family feuds and sugar politics.

Consider the case of the Kopargaon segment in the Ahmednagar constituency where the manoeuvrings have a cold-blooded intricacy. The sole aim of the candidates is to get the ticket regardless of the party. The NCP candidate is Bipin Kolhe, son of former Congress and later NCP veteran, Shankarrao Kolhe. The Congress aspirant, Ashok Kale ( son of another veteran Congressman), deprived of the ticket, has opted to contest on the Shiv Sena ticket. In 1999 Kale had fought on the Congress ticket against Shankarrao Kolhe (NCP). Up to this point the plot reads like a common political drama, but it gets devious when the local pulls of family supremacy come into play.

The Kolhes are an influential family and their rivals are the Vikhe-Patils, who were Congressmen and then shifted to the Shiv Sena and are now back in the Congress. Local Congress leader and chairman of the Godavari Milk Cooperative Rajesh Parjane (who also happens to be the brother-in-law of Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil, the sitting Congress legislator) indicated the possibility of putting up an independent candidate against Kolhe. This did not happen, but it is a stark indicator of the thinking that drives Congress-NCP politics.

The belief that an election is a way of getting even with your local rival is deep-seated in the Akole reserved seat in Ahmednagar. Ashok Bhangare, a long-time rival of the Congress MLA Madhukarrao Pichad, had expressed a desire to contest on the Congress or NCP ticket but Pichad's dominance ruined his chances. Hence he opted for the Sena. Likewise, in Shrigonda, Baban Pachpute, former head of the State unit of the NCP, rebelled and filed his papers as an independent. Pachpute was a victim of the seat-sharing arrangement between the Congress and the NCP. Shrigonda was allotted to the Congress.

The other interesting seat is Solapur. It saw a significant change in the last Lok Sabha elections when Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde's wife, Ujjwala, was defeated. The machinations behind the defeat brought to light the first high-profile public instance of antagonism between the Congress and the NCP. The battle continued to the Assembly elections with the NCP demanding that the Congress vacate one of the two Solapur city seats in its favour.

In Satara district, the NCP has 10 sitting legislators whereas the Congress has just one, Cooperation Minister Vilaskaka Patil Undalkar. This did not stop the Congress from demanding five seats in the district, which they were refused. This caused rebellion in the district. Madan Bhosale, Congress district chief who has been expelled, , justified the demand thus: "The NCP may have more Assembly seats but we have increased our strength in the recent zilla parishad and panchayat samiti polls and so we deserve more seats." Bhosale was keen to get the Wai ticket, which is held by the NCP's Madanrao Pisal, and has filed his papers as an independent candidate.

Possibly the most accurate indicator of the extent of the problem is the trouble Sharad Pawar is facing in his Lok Sabha constituency of Baramati in Pune district. The NCP has fielded sitting MLA and Pawar's nephew, Ajit Pawar, from the Assembly segment of Baramati but he will have to face Popatrao Tupe, his former right-hand man who has rebelled against the party and is standing on the Sena ticket. In neighbouring Daund, the NCP's sitting legislator Ranjana Kul will have to contest against a discontented Ramesh Thorat who has filed his papers as an independent. Thorat was also a close confidant of Ajit Pawar.

Pune district's 18 Assembly constituencies have 148 contestants and dissension there is so high that the saffron combine (which has no rebels in this district) is believed to be taking advantage of the situation. In the Khed-Alandi and Daund constituencies, for instance, the Sena-BJP has not put up any candidate, thereby indicating that the rebel NCP candidates who have stood as independents have their support.

Prataprao Bhosale, a former PCC chief who quit the Congress, said that there is a strong likelihood of Congress rebels extending support to the Sena-BJP if they come to power. Support is also forthcoming from Vinay Kore of Warana district who has formed the Lok Swarajya Party with the tacit support of the Sena-BJP.

Political opportunism has marked the entire term of the Congress-led Democratic Front government. Possibly the most telling example of this was the manner in which the Sena-BJP and Congress-NCP ruled the Raigad zilla parishad. The only motive that bound these unlikely partners was to prevent the Peasants and Workers Party, which had a monopoly over Raigad, from winning the parishad elections.

Other examples surfaced during the last Lok Sabha elections. Sugar baron Balasaheb Vikhe-Patil, who was elected five times to Parliament on the Congress ticket from Ahmednagar, joined the Shiv Sena a few years ago. He was even made a Minister in the A.B. Vajpayee Cabinet but was dropped after sometime at Bal Thackeray's insistence. He then rejoined the Congress.

Political opportunism worked both ways with saffron parties losing people to the Congress-NCP. Jaisingrao Gaikwad, elected as MP from Gopinath Munde's home district of Beed, fell out with Munde and crossed over to the NCP, which promptly gave him the ticket for the same seat.

Perhaps the murkiest cross over was by Solapur's Pratapsinh Mohite Patil, brother of Deputy Chief Minister Vijaysinh Mohite Patil. Pratapsinh crossed over to the BJP and won the Solapur Lok Sabha byelections a few months ago with the full support of the district NCP. Even the local Congress unit helped Pratapsinh thereby ensuring that their own candidate, Ujwala Shinde, lost. After Vijaysinh was made Deputy Chief Minister, Pratapsinh declined to re-contest as the BJP candidate from Solapur. Pawar has been struggling to contain rebellion ever since it began against the then NCP Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal. Although Bhujbal ultimately resigned, dissatisfaction within the party continued with rebels and breakaway groups keeping Pawar on tenterhooks. The rebellious spirit was so high then that the 19 NCP MLAs submitted a signed statement that they had no plans to quit. Despite this there were rumours that if the dissidents did not manage enough numbers to avoid the anti-defection law, they would resign from the NCP just to put the government in peril.

"You can't throw a rock into a pool and not expect the water to splash," says a Congressman blaming the present factionalism on Pawar and the creation of the NCP. If Pawar had not split the party in 1999, a united Congress would have practically decimated the saffron combine. As it was, the Sena-BJP won 125 seats and a divided Congress and NCP won 133. It would seem that the Congress-NCP did not learn a lesson from 1999.

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