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Two captains at the helm

The Congress in Maharashtra is in ferment with the Chief Minister and the State party chief at loggerheads. But nothing is in their hands. Ms. Sonia Gandhi decides. MAHESH VIJAPURKAR reports.

TWO KEY persons in Maharashtra's Congress arrangement, Mr. Vilasrao Deshmukh and Mr. Govindrao Adik, operate under severe handicaps. Mr. Deshmukh, who never thought the party would have a Chief Minister because of its size in the Legislature, got the post through an unnatural arithmetic and was mandated by the party to do business with the enemy; he has to, if the multi- party coalition which includes the Nationalist Congress Party has to remain afloat. It is a Government long on promises, short on performance being short of funds.

Mr. Adik, a former Sharad Pawar loyalist-turned-foe, was not elected but nominated by Ms. Sonia Gandhi to head the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress. Later, when made an MLC, it was with an explicit understanding that he would not get under Mr. Deshmukh's skin.

Everything, therefore, should have been just fine. Two Marathas at the top, one sitting atop the administrative pyramid, the other leading the party apparatus. They went about their jobs with some elan, Mr. Deshmukh making his compromises with the rivals who compete for the same political space in Maharashtra just to keep the Government going. Or else the party faced the prospect of drifting as an Opposition, or an election.

Mr. Adik, on the other hand, went full blast against the NCP, saying ``next time, we would like to come to power on our own''. His bluster made it appear often that the arrangement led by Mr. Deshmukh would come apart at the seams. He allowed NCP men to migrate to the Congress, which was avoidable when the two were coalition partners. What Mr. Deshmukh could not do being in the Government, Mr. Adik did with a flourish. Even the NCP acknowledged that he ``has his work to do.'' It was not contradictory. It was required.

An admirable arrangement. But the story line took lurching turns because both became ambitious. Mr. Deshmukh wanted his own man to replace Mr. Adik, on the premise that two Marathas at the top sent negative signals to the OBCs, the SCs and the STs and even Muslims who needed to be wooed back in competition with the NCP. Mr. Deshmukh also suspected that Mr. Adik was eyeing his chair.

When Mr. Adik, in usual Congress style, packed the list of delegates to insure his supremacy in the event of a poll in the organisation, Mr. Deshmukh blew his top. This was mis-construed to 10 Janpath as defiance of Ms. Sonia Gandhi. Basically, Mr. Adik foisted Mumbai partymen on the list from the districts because the Mumbai party chief, Mr. Murli Deora, did not accommodate his acolytes.

None of them were active members in that they did not even enroll people into the party; that is why Mr. Deora did not put them on the delegates list. In the Adik-run juggling, elders such as Mr. V. N. Gadgil had to seek refuge elsewhere to get on the list. That list is a mess, PAs of Mr. Adik and people who have little to do with the party have got on it.

This led to a cold war but both sides showed restraint. Mr. Adik realises Mr. Deshmukh does not want him around and Mr. Deshmukh knows the party chief has ambitions. Mr. Suresh Kalmadi, MP, who switches parties with ease now sides with Mr. Adik. Both sides were now keen on re-working the line-up within the party to their own advantage and frequent trips to Delhi for consultations and regular huddles in Mumbai were common.

But nothing is in their warring hands, because Ms. Gandhi decides. She may say: ``elect your own president in Maharashtra.'' If she does not, then two bitter men will run the party and the Government as rivals.

The upshot: the next polls could see a weakened party wilting before the electorate. If she does, there will be a bitter party poll with an uncertain outcome. Same result.

She opted for status quo. In burlesque typical of the party, Mr. Deshmukh signed Mr. Adik's nomination past midnight on Friday; the poll scheduled for Saturday with delegates unaware of it. It matters little since ``the selected gets elected''.

Now, Mr. Deshmukh will look to deals to get his men in the several party outfits and the two will ``share the power structure.'' Both will now ``be loyal soldiers'' and shadowbox into the future.

That's the Congress way.

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