Chief Minister-designate combines a sharp intellect with modesty
As Prithviraj Chavan walked through the Parliament House on Wednesday, accepting congratulations, it was only too evident that excited as he is about what is, arguably, one of the most important political assignments in the country — Chief Minister of Maharashtra — he was going to miss Delhi. For it is in Lutyen's Delhi, rather than among the sugar cooperatives of his home State of Maharashtra, that he has cut his political teeth.
As a regular for many years at the India International Centre's Saturday Club, he became part of a set that included former Prime Ministers, intellectuals and academics, till ministerial and organisational responsibilities claimed all his attention. It is here in Delhi that he almost daily plays a game of badminton with the likes of Ram Jethmalani and Rajiv Pratap Rudy.
Of course, the 64-year-old Berkeley-educated engineer, with a special interest in research in computerisation of Indian languages, has a political pedigree grounded in his home State, Maharashtra. His father, D.R. Chavan, was Minister of State for Defence at the Centre, and when he died comparatively young, his mother, Premilatai, succeeded her husband as MP from Karad, going on to become Maharashtra Pradesh Congress chief.
Starting in 1991, Mr. Chavan won the family seat of Karad thrice, in 1991, 1996 and 1998 and lost it in 1999. There was a brief gap thereafter — during which period he had to move from a flat on the centrally located Humayun Road to a rented apartment in south Delhi. But then, in 2002, he was made a Rajya Sabha MP and has been a member of the Upper House ever since.
The Chief Minister-designate combines a sharp intellect with modesty, a clean image with a keen sense of humour. If he has a shortcoming, it is that he sometimes appears to be a little out of depth in the rough and tumble of politics and the intrigue that characterises the Congress.
Indeed, in 2009, it was generally expected that he would be made a cabinet Minister after five years in the Prime Minister's Office. Instead, he was given a mind-boggling number of portfolios, with offices on both sides of Raisina Hill, in South Block (in the Prime Minister's Office) and North Block (Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions) as well as at Anusandhan Bhavan (Science and Technology) — not to mention that he continued to be a party general secretary. As he raced from appointment to appointment in Delhi, dashing off to Srinagar every so often, he often looked spent. But in the end, his hard work paid off – he began to deal with his many jobs.
His finest hour came in the monsoon session of Parliament when he piloted the Nuclear Liability Bill, negotiating with difficult Opposition MPs, and presided over its successful passage in Parliament.
As Minister in the PMO, he was the link between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi, gaining their confidence and trust over the last six-and-a-half years. His economic vision is similar to that of the Prime Minister — he doesn't belong to the socialist left of the party, and that should help in corporate Mumbai.
For journalists dealing with him over the years, first as an Opposition MP, and later as a Minister, he is among a handful who can give perspective to an issue — particularly those with an economic or scientific dimension. Indeed, this correspondent recalls that when he first became the MoS in the PMO, he said, he was excited that he now would be able to read the Atomic Energy files — there was so much he was learning, he said. Clearly, not your average Maharashtra pol. In private conversations, he can be tentative and unsure sometimes, bouncing off ideas, never taking things for granted. But place a microphone in front of him, and the words just flow. And even after close to two decades in Delhi's political hothouse, he causes comment because he has never been seen to throw his weight around in public.
On Wednesday, he took a last nostalgia-filled look around the room, two doors from that of the Prime Minister's, in Parliament House where he used to hold daily court with officials, MPs and journalists, through the session. But it was time for him to move on.