NCP Deputy Chief Minister's budget draws Congress ire
Some time ago, Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar proclaimed himself as a “tagya,” (a ruffian or rowdy) after he publicly abused the media at a meeting in Nanded, triggering a brief press boycott. Mr Pawar is not exactly a popular person with the media and he has rivals within his own party. There is a reason why Mr. Pawar suspects that the behaviour of Opposition members was orchestrated when they shouted down his maiden budget speech in the Assembly last week.
A furious Mr. Pawar demanded that even top Opposition leaders be suspended but better sense prevailed and only nine MLAs bore the brunt of his ire. On Tuesday, the suspension was revoked after the Opposition expressed regret over its unprecedented behaviour.
But the budget presented by Mr. Pawar drew the ire of Congress Ministers and MLAs, and even a senior Nationalist Congress Party Minister complained that his department was denied funds. The Congress Ministers and MLAs are miffed at the allocation to their departments and constituencies and a day after the budget, Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan was assailed with complaints. Party sources said about 70 per cent of the funds went to the NCP and its constituencies in some cases.
The Chief Minister's short reign has not been without problems. There are complaints from all quarters that files are not moving and key decisions are being delayed. To top it all, in New Delhi, Mr. Chavan is reported to have said, in response to complaints of Congress being short-changed, that he would have to examine the budget papers. Even Industries Minister Narayan Rane was upset that his suggestions for the Konkan region were not incorporated and some of the funds proposed were diverted to Nashik, the stronghold of NCP Tourism Minister Chhagan Bhujbal. While Mr. Chavan tried to pacify the MLAs, it was clear that the Congress had been badly bruised in the budget allocations. The party has been smarting under its ally, the NCP, getting the more important portfolios, including Home, Finance, Power and Irrigation.
While Mr. Chavan had a four-hour meeting with Mr. Pawar before the budget and worked out many details of policy, it was assumed that the Finance Minister would take a balanced approach, party sources said, which, however, did not happen. In the last Assembly elections, the Congress was mulling over the question of portfolios and demanding that it get at least the key portfolios of Home and Finance from the NCP, especially since it won more seats. This issue was never really sorted out and it could pose more problems for the party.
Mr. Chavan has been extra cautious in his approach and anxious not to take any rash decision. As a result, many projects have been pending since months creating even more disgruntlement among the MLAs and Ministers. Mr. Chavan revived the Dharavi redevelopment project and had an extensive meeting at which he discussed the proposal that the State agency redevelop one sector in Dharavi so that the profits which usually go to private builders would come to the government. A final decision on this is yet to be taken. Mr. Prithviraj Chavan's position as Chief Minister, since he took over from Ashok Chavan, has been to give the State a clean image. However, the effort has led to a paralysis in government decisions. Sources close to the Chief Minister said every file was tinged with corruption of some sort and it was difficult for the new Chief Minister to take decisions without a careful scrutiny.
Mr. Pawar is emerging as the cannier and more decisive of the two State leaders. As Finance Minister, he has focussed on streamlining revenue collection and allotted large subsidies for agriculture-related areas and loans at low interest rates for farmers. However, in his desire for control, he has stepped on everyone's toes since he took over. Before the budget Mr. Pawar wrote to all Ministers asking them to attend meetings concerning a review of their departments. At least one Congress Minister wrote back to him, saying he was perfectly capable of conducting the affairs of his own Ministry. However, some Ministers ignored his diktat.
There were differences over how the issue of disruption of the budget speech should be addressed, with Mr. Pawar taking a harsh view. The Opposition disrupted the budget speech protesting the government's unrelenting stand on the issue of exclusion of MLAs from heading the district committees for various programmes including the Sanjay Gandhi Niradhar Yojana. After the suspension of nine MLAs was revoked, Mr. Chavan has agreed to look into the Opposition's grievances.
The Chief Minister has made himself against coalitions clear and Mr. Pawar's behaviour is not going to make him change those views. Mr. Chavan is now called on to take a more placatory stand and tone down the brashness of his deputy, who at times is unrepentant of his actions. At the same time, he has to get around to being decisive in sanctioning government projects. There is a good reason why the Congress is seriously considering going it alone in the local bodies polls which are coming up this year and the next. For the NCP, with its focus on rural schemes and agriculture in the budget, that choice seems to have been made.