The relationship between the Congress and its ally, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) has reached a new low with Sharad Pawar threatening to quit the UPA government and provide only “outside support” if his party’s demands are not met. The NCP is part of the coalition government in Maharashtra and the threat, if effected, could have serious implications in the State. In a letter to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, the NCP has complained about policy issues and the fact that it is kept out of decision making. It has accused the Congress of one party rule and not functioning like a coalition. Mr. Pawar seems to have been goaded into action by the impending Cabinet reshuffle, the organisational changes in the Congress, where Rahul Gandhi is slated to play a more powerful role, and by the possibility of his one- time protégé Sushilkumar Shinde getting a key position. There are issues over decision-making within the United Progressive Alliance, and in Maharashtra there is antipathy to Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan’s functioning. In a bid to restore the tattered image of the State government, the Maharashtra CM has been scrupulous, much to the dismay of the builder and contractor lobby. The rumbling about lack of decision-making in the government is largely coming from this section. Mr. Chavan has also done his bit to antagonise his coalition ally by putting the NCP-controlled Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank under administrators and insisting on a white paper from the NCP-headed irrigation department, among other things.
Today, the Congress and the NCP look more like sparring partners, not allies, and it is no wonder that they decided to go it alone in the Maharashtra local bodies’ polls. The NCP came up trumps, outsmarting the Congress in some municipal corporations by tying up with right-wing parties. There is speculation that the party will junk the Congress and go with new allies in 2014, but that remains to be seen. Mr. Pawar enjoys a good rapport with Ms Gandhi and the Prime Minister. It is unlikely that they will react unreasonably to his demands — assuming, of course, that his demands are reasonable. But the Congress also has to keep in mind that the NCP is not its only coalition partner and that the UPA has within its fold larger and trickier allies. The quality of the Congress’s mercy may be tempered by these considerations. Mr. Pawar, a man with prime ministerial ambitions, may be miffed at not getting his due in the Union government and the lack of discussion in key areas like agriculture, food security, irrigation and exports. But he is also adept at negotiating a good bargain. The Congress which is fighting its allies on all fronts, can no longer afford to take the NCP’s demands lightly.