With the Shiv Sena lending a political thrust to the campaign against Jaitapur nuclear project, there is growing unease in the ruling Congress-NCP combine over the issue taking form of a ‘Sena versus Narayan Rane’ conflict.

A large section in the Congress as also the NCP wants chief minister Prithviraj Chavan to be seen in complete charge of efforts to defuse the situation obtaining in Jaitapur after April 18 police firing on protesters which claimed one life and to dispel the impression that Industries Minister Rane was party’s pointsman for the project.

Mr. Rane, a former Maharashtra chief minister, who quit the Sena in 2005 to join Congress, has been accused by the Opposition of “orchestrating atrocities” on the locals reluctant to part with their land for the project.

“Rane used the government machinery to put down popular protests against the project and orchestrated atrocities against those opposed to it,” senior Sena leader and MLA Subhash Desai said.

“Locals were bound to get angry when those protesting against the project are threatened and their protests stifled with force,” said Sanjay Raut, editor of party mouthpiece “Saamna” and Sena Rajya Sabha member.

The death in police firing and a successful bandh called by the Sena the next day prompted Minister of Environment and Forest Jairam Ramesh to issue a statement in which he said that public concern over Jaitapur was genuine and even suggested a “pause” for the project till a transparent atomic policy is formulated.

“We cannot abandon the project. But I am neither pleading reversal nor fast progression as a pause is the best option till a transparent nuclear policy is formulated”, Mr. Ramesh said.

Mr. Rane’s statement that 11 corporate houses had offered Rs 500 crore to the Sena to thwart the project only added fuel to the fire as the saffron party was quick to turn the allegation to its advantage, saying it reflected government’s indifference to people’s genuine concerns over their safety after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The Congress and NCP share the view that Shiv Sena has appropriated the leadership of the anti-Jaitapur campaign to cut Mr. Rane to size as also to test its popularity before the zilla parishad and panchayat samiti polls to be held later this year and elections to ten municipal corporations including the prestitious Mumbai civic body in early 2012.

However, the Sena says there is no politics involved in its agitation and that it is the people who have given the party the leadership of the movement.

“It is the people who have given the leadership of the movement to our party. The Jaitapur-Madban area is not dominated by Shiv Sena. The majority of locals opposed to the project are muslims who have never voted for Shiv Sena. The issue concerns their livelihood and surival. How can anybody bring politics in this,” he told PTI.

Noting that the Sena was never opposed to development, Raut said most dams, roads and highways were constructed in the state when Shiv Sena-BJP combine was in power. “However, Jaitapur is a different issue. We have examples of Fukushima and Chernobyl nuclear disasters,” he said.

Mr. Rane’s aggressive defence of the project, according to Congress insiders, is aimed at reasserting his hold in the Konkan region after he failed to get his supporters elected in the 2009 assembly elections. He is the lone Congress MLA in the Sindhudurg-Ratnagiri parliamentary constituency, which is represented by his elder son Nilesh in the Lok Sabha.

On the other hand, the Shiv Sena sees in Jaitapur issue a chance to regain its hold over the coastal Konkan belt.

According to Congress sources, after chief minister’s meeting with prime minister and Jairam Ramesh on April 26 in Delhi where the government made it clear that it would go ahead with the Jaitapur project, Chavan would spearhead all efforts to engage with the local communities to allay their concerns about the mammoth 9900 mw plant.