Four non-Marathas have been appointed as ministers to shore up support in various constituencies
After creating a ruckus with its demand of reservation for Marathas as Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and making it an election plank in 2009 without much success, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) has now inducted four non-Marathas as ministers in a Cabinet reshuffle. Of the six ministers it dropped in the reshuffle, only Laxman Dhobale (Scheduled Caste) is a non-Maratha. The move has reduced the overall number of the dominant community in its share of the Cabinet.
The makeover, which in itself doesn’t look like much, is an attempt, party sources say, at shoring up support in various constituencies. According to a political observer, it seems to be more like a course correction for a Maratha dominated party. The only real change, he says, is that Madhukar Pichad, a tribal, now heads the Tribal Development Ministry unlike in the past.
Changes have been made to safeguard the NCP’s interests in key constituencies. For instance, Dilip Sopal from the Lingayat community, inducted as a Cabinet rank Minister, could help the party, as the community has a presence in several Lok Sabha seats like Madha (held by party president Sharad Pawar), Kolhapur, Hatkanangale, Osmanabad and Parbhani, the sources said.
Mr. Pawar is not going to contest from Madha in 2014 and making the seat safe for the NCP was a priority. The constituency has six Assembly segments — four from Solapur district and Man and Phaltan from Satara. Removing Ram Raje Naik Nimbalkar from the Cabinet, who was elected from Phaltan, and getting in Mr. Sopal also from Solapur (Barshi) was another step to consolidate the party’s base.
The NCP wants to shake off its Maratha party tag keeping in mind the possibility that reservation for the community could be approved at some point. To counter it, the Congress appointed a committee led by Industries Minister Narayan Rane in March to examine the demand for quota for Marathas. The issue has come up once again before the State Backward Classes Commission, which has time and again rejected this demand. The Congress is trying to checkmate the NCP on Maratha reservation by playing to the gallery.
While Mr. Pawar has safeguarded his own constituency, the Cabinet reshuffle also gives the NCP a new flavour — being a considerate party willing to take other communities along. Its front-ranking OBC leader Chhagan Bhujbal will probably get a Lok Sabha ticket, but it is to subdue the influence of the OBC leader from the BJP, Gopinath Munde, that Minister of State Prakash Solanke had become the casualty. Beed district, where Mr. Munde is an MP, was the stronghold of the saffron party. But in 2009, BJP MLAs Suresh Dhas and Mr. Solanke joined the NCP and the BJP suffered a body blow in the Assembly polls, winning only one of the six seats in the district.
Mr. Solanke, once a Munde confidante, failed to counter the BJP leader’s influence, which is crucial if the NCP has to retain its position there. In Mr. Solanke’s place has come the more dynamic Mr. Dhas, who is now Minister of State for Revenue.
In a key move, Bhaskar Jadhav has been appointed State NCP president despite his transgressions. The former Minister of State for Urban Development, who other than conducting lavish weddings for his son and daughter and offending the senior Pawar, also put up a rebel panel with his son in it for the Chiplun municipal council polls in 2011.
Political observers from Chiplun said Mr. Jadhav was unhappy with the ticket allocation and decided to form his own panel, Shahar Vikas Aghadi, which contested against the official NCP panel backed by the former MLA, Ramesh Kadam, who is a rival of Mr. Jadhav. Mr. Jadhav’s Aghadi fared poorly and Mr. Kadam triumphed in the polls.
The new Minister of State from Ratnagiri, Uday Samant, is a confidant of Water Resources Minister Sunil Tatkare. The NCP president favoured Mr. Jadhav, a former Shiv Sena MLA, who joined the NCP in 2004, to act as a buffer against the powerful influence of Mr. Tatkare and his mentor, Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar. It fact, Mr. Tatkare, not the well-wisher of Mr. Jadhav, seconded the resolution to elect the latter as State president on Saturday. Mr. Jadhav later said he didn’t have any animosity towards Mr. Tatkare.
Even though the senior Pawar called for the resignations and put the reshuffle in motion in a bid to show who the boss is, most of the new ministers are supporters of Mr. Ajit Pawar. Mr. Pawar also defended the Cabinet reshuffle saying ministers were not removed because they didn’t perform. The five dropped ministers were now in the party’s core group for the Lok Sabha elections. People had to be given responsibility and prepare before the general elections, he said.
With Jitendra Awhad from the OBC as working president, who has been elected from a Muslim-dominated constituency in Mumbra-Kalwa, the party is hoping to draw in youths and backward communities to improve its chances in next year’s elections. Aimed at hiking its numbers in the Lok Sabha polls in 2014, the senior Pawar says he had to bring in a younger leadership for the party’s benefit. But the NCP is not without its share of factionalism, and the party president has to make sure these new changes don’t deepen the existing rifts or create new revolts.