The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) continued to pressure the Congress, with NCP supremo Sharad Pawar skipping the dinner hosted by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Monday for outgoing President Pratibha Patil, even as the party announced that it would need another 48 hours to decide its future course of action. However, Mr. Pawar’s deputy Praful Patel attended the high tea hosted in Ms. Patil’s honour by Speaker of the Lok Sabha Meira Kumar. Congress president Sonia Gandhi was also present there and the two were seen having a brief interaction .
Earlier, the carefully calibrated briefing by Mr. Praful Patel indicated that there was no danger to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government: “As far as the UPA is concerned,” Mr. Patel said, shortly after an hour long meeting of senior NCP leaders at Mr Pawar’s residence, “we are a ‘core constituent’ and will continue to be a part of it till the 2014 elections. The NCP is a responsible constituent of the UPA at the Centre and in Maharashtra. We want the government in the State to run properly.” The NCP’s reason for postponing its decision till Wednesday — that its State leaders could not attend Monday’s meeting — seemed thin, indicating that the party was playing for time.
The Congress, on its part, was equally careful in its choice of words. The party’s media chairperson and general secretary, Janardan Dwivedi, told journalists: “In coalition politics such situations arise and are solved through dialogue and mutual understanding. Let us hope for the best.” Indeed, even as the two parties spar, efforts to broker a deal continued.
The fact that the pressure is coming from the the NCP’s Maharashtra unit, which is unhappy with Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, was also clear. While Mr. Patel said the party was working “under the directions of its State unit” and that the NCP was not able to take a decision as their State leaders could not attend Monday’s meeting, a senior Congress functionary stressed, “The pressure is coming from Maharashtra”.
The problem in the Maharashtra, sources in the Congress say, is that the NCP’s top leaders are at the receiving end of corruption allegations levelled by the Opposition, even as Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan remains engaged in a “clean-up” operation. However, Mr. Praful Patel, addressing this issue, said, “A section of the Congress has been spreading these canards...maybe they have malicious pleasure in making Congress-NCP relations go bad. The NCP is as committed as the Congress to provide a clean government in Maharashtra.”
On Monday, the NCP had to answer questions on the expenditure incurred on the new Maharashtra Sadan building in New Delhi and the contracts allegedly given to firms linked Public Works Minister Chhagan Bhiujbal of the NCP, , in the Maharasthra assembly. The NCP is also upset that Mr. Chavan has announced that there will soon be a “white paper” on the irrigation department, which was presided over till 2009 by Mr Pawar's nephew, Ajit Pawar, after which it was given to the NCP's Sunil Tatkare. The Opposition has alleged that in a decade, Rs. 70,000 crores have been spent on dams with very little to show for it.
As the NCP continued to gently prod the Congress to get a bigger share of the decision-making pie at the Centre, and aggressively push it in Maharashtra to secure greater political space , sources in the Congress said the uncertainty would ensure that the cabinet reshuffle will now have to wait till the monsoon session gets over. With the Congress still determined not to give Mr. Pawar one of the top four jobs in the Government — finance, home, external affairs and defence — the possibility of better, perhaps even additional, portfolios for other NCP members has grown, said the sources in the Congress. However, the other demand of the NCP’s Maharashtra unit for Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan’s resignation is also unlikely to be conceded, these sources added.