Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan resisting pressure tactics
Not for the first time Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) president Sharad Pawar has made a move to assert his supreme authority in the party and propel it to more respectability, keeping an eagle eye on the general and Maharashtra Assembly polls in 2014.
Even if his demand for the resignation of all NCP ministers seemed sudden, it was not without a warning. Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan was informed of this move by Mr. Pawar himself two months ago and the NCP was clear about its course of action for well over nine months. While the Congress has been procrastinating on Cabinet reshuffle, it is in the NCP’s interests to get its act together. When Mr. Chavan took over in 2010 as Chief Minister to clean up the mess in Maharashtra, the Congress was reeling under the Adarsh society scam, which claimed Ashok Chavan’s scalp.After that it was the NCP’s turn to face the music.
The NCP Ministers have, one after another, been accused of various scams — Chhagan Bhujbal and Sunil Tatkare face Anti-Corruption Bureau probe; Gulabrao Devkar was arrested and released on bail, and Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar quit last year while a White Paper on irrigation was being prepared. Though he re-entered the Cabinet after three months, Mr. Ajit Pawar is not untainted. The government appointed a special investigation team (SIT) headed by former bureaucrat Madhav Chitale in December 2012 to investigate the irrigation scenario and to fix responsibility if there are any irregularities. However, there is no mention of the SIT probing the alleged corruption in the sector on which several petitions are pending in the Bombay High Court. Recently the Cabinet has decided not to approve prosecution of NCP Minister Vijay Kumar Gavit in a corruption case.
Clearly, the NCP is in need of an image makeover more than the Congress, which is why Mr. Chavan did not fall for Mr. Pawar’s pressure tactics, for two months, for a Cabinet reshuffle. The Congress has other things on its mind. Party sources said the high command was seriously considering the appointment of a new PCC president to replace Manikrao Thakre, whose tenure is almost five years old now. The war between Mr. Chavan and Mr. Thakre is out in the open, with the Yavatmal bypoll proving a fresh bone of contention. Mr Thakre, upset that his son was denied ticket, which went to the wife of deceased MLA Nilesh Parvekar, did his best to thwart her chances. Recently, he openly declared his support for a park at the Mahalaxmi race course, a plan suggested by the Shiv Sena, when even the NCP supported the Congress.
The relationship between the Chief Ministers and the PCC chiefs in Maharashtra has been thorny in the past too and the Congress is aware that it cannot head for elections next year in this fractious mode. The Cabinet reshuffle can come later though Mr. Chavan has been keen on it for a while.
Pichad to be replaced?
For the NCP, the move to get the Ministers to quit also paves the way for its strategy of giving ticket to seniors like Mr. Bhujbal to contest the Lok Sabha election and infusing new blood into the Cabinet. It wants to replace Maharashtra NCP president Madhukar Pichad by a more popular and amenable face to lead the party into elections. In the reshuffle, Mr. Ajit Pawar may try to bring his supporters to Cabinet posts. Party sources say the Congress reshuffle, if it is being done now, will be held after the NCP decides on its ministers and names the new party president by next week.
At a press conference on Friday, Mr. Sharad Pawar was unusually modest about his claims to prime ministership. He said a party which contested only 22 Lok Sabha seats could not be in any such position. However, looking at the rise of Narendra Modi’s stature and the possibility of new alignments at the Centre, Mr. Pawar would be happier with more than eight Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra that the party won in 2009.
BJP woos MNS
In the rival camp, the Bharatiya Janata Party has been wooing the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) led by Raj Thackeray into its saffron alliance and if that happens, the Congress could face problems. The Shiv Sena has expressed its displeasure over these moves. Even BJP MP Gopinath Munde, who set the ball rolling by calling for both Raj and Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray to come together, has recently said he would not push the matter anymore. An alliance in which both the Shiv Sena and the MNS are there will pose problems for the Congress and its own coalition partner’s allegiance could be in doubt then, say some political observers.
Mr. Sharad Pawar is a staunch votary of coalitions, knowing full well his party cannot win the State under its own steam. He will be open to new allies if he sees the wind blowing that way, but for now he must be content within the Congress-led alliance. The Cabinet reshuffle and a new State party president seem a last-ditch stand to brighten the NCP’s image and its chances in the two major elections next year.