The demand for removal of Prithviraj Chavan as Maharashtra Chief Minister has made the Congress’ national leadership uneasy.
The party, however, is not worried about whether a change so close to the Assembly polls in the State can make any difference to its electoral outcome, but about Maharashtra, one of its few remaining bastions, slipping out of its hands.
From 1960, when the State of Maharashtra was carved out of the erstwhile Bombay state, the Congress has been out of power for precisely six years, including four months of President’s Rule. A Shiv Sena-led government ruled the State from 1995 to 1999, while a Progressive Democratic Front led by Sharad Pawar was in power from 1978 to 1980. The present Congress-Nationalist Congress Party combine has held sway over the State for close to 15 years.
With the Congress losing both Telangana and Andhra Pradesh — the two States carved out of the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh — in the recent elections and finding it hard to get a toehold in the States where it once had strong roots such as Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the prospect of losing Maharashtra is frightening.
Party sources said the pressure from the NCP on the Congress to change its Chief Minister must be viewed against this backdrop. It is not merely a question of the NCP being unhappy with Mr. Chavan’s style of functioning — it is the fear of slipping into oblivion if some desperate measures are not resorted to.
Indeed, the recent meetings between senior Congress leaders Ahmed Patel and A.K. Antony and NCP supremo Sharad Pawar in the national capital, party sources said, focussed on how best to strengthen the Congress-NCP alliance. One of the suggestions put forward was a merger of the two parties, but that has been ruled out for the present, it is learnt.
There is concern that if nothing is done soon, the Congress leaders may also start leaving the party. On Monday, party strongman Narayan Rane threatened to quit the Congress, saying he would not accept anyone other than former Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde as a replacement for Mr. Chavan.
The Chief Minister, who was in the capital to meet Congress president Sonia Gandhi and other senior leaders on Saturday, appeared to have bought some time. Top party sources said he may be summoned back to the national capital for one more meeting this week.
But, clearly, time is running out for the Congress. It must end the uncertainty and get on with planning for the elections.