Ashok Chavan has wasted a golden opportunity; his tenure will now be remembered for scandals rather than any major policy decision.
When Ashok Chavan took over as Chief Minister of Maharashtra the first time, the city of Mumbai was recovering from the November 26, 2008 terror strike. He replaced Vilasrao Deshmukh, who quit after his infamous tour of a battered Taj Mahal Hotel with film-maker Ram Gopal Varma in tow.
At that time, Mr. Chavan, 50, seemed a man of action, eager to do things. In an interview to The Hindu he said he cherished the ideal of his father S.B. Chavan, two-time Chief Minister of the State and former Union Home Minister. He was a “great administrator,” the son said. He recognised the difficulties of politics in the era of coalitions.
Two years down the line, Mr. Chavan has not only not lived up to those expectations but has also antagonised his coalition partner, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), and sections of his own party. His tenure has been rocky from the start, with an initial rebellion by another chief ministerial aspirant, Narayan Rane, who is now Revenue Minister. Mr. Rane doggedly thwarted Mr. Chavan even after a patch-up and is now aligned with Mr. Deshmukh, who aspires to return to head the State.
Series of scandals
The art of administration cannot be inherited, as Mr. Chavan must have realised. Moving with a close coterie and yet not having too many confidants, he was a rather lonely leader. The scams did not help either. Triumphant after leading the Congress into a third consecutive term in the State, Mr. Chavan was faced with the “paid news” scandal involving his election expenses and advertisements in several newspapers during his election campaign. That issue remains before the Election Commission. Mr. Chavan also faced controversies relating to a number of land scams, raised by a rather half-hearted Opposition, especially during sessions of the State legislature. He neither ordered an official inquiry nor punished the perpetrators of irregularities in land deals.
In the Adarsh Society project, Mr. Chavan's late mother-in-law and two other family members had flats. His brother-in-law and MP, Bhaskarrao Patil Khatgaonkar, who headed the district central cooperative bank in his hometown of Nanded, and his sister, a director, are facing an inquiry over the bank's closure. It was only in March 2010, five years after irregularities were detected and the bank was closed down in 2005, that an inquiry was initiated. An inspection report, dated November 11, 2005, of the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development — NABARD (Maharashtra regional office, Pune), slammed the bank for its shoddy functioning. Last year, Mr. Chavan tried to revive the bank with a government grant of Rs. 110 crore, but the Reserve Bank of India disallowed the proposal.
Governance a major casualty
Governance has been a major casualty under his regime. Mr. Chavan is close to completing a year as Chief Minister for the second time, but his tenure will be remembered for all the scandals rather than any major policy decisions. It will also be remembered for the brazenness with which irregularities and scams have been addressed. The major issue of land acquired by the Lavasa project near Pune was dealt with by his arch-rival, Mr. Rane, who as Revenue Minister sweetly offered to levy heavy fines and regularise everything that the Revenue Department found was wrong with the project.
Mr. Rane's son Nitesh allegedly shot one of his supporters, but the police and other agencies said no bullet was fired. A case of attempted murder was registered against Nitesh, but no action has been forthcoming from the police. The perception that this government is busy squabbling within itself or protecting the guilty has gained ground. And that perception is only strengthened by the revelation that politicians or bureaucrats who helped clear the files for Adarsh Society have been favoured with flats in the prime area of South Mumbai.
The TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor worked during the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections and enabled the Congress-NCP combine to retain its hold over Maharashtra. The only reason that could cause a change in leadership in Maharashtra is the Congress high command's perception that the leadership is ineffective. With regard to the choice of a new Chief Minister the high command may be in a Catch-22 situation, for the usual suspects — Vilasrao Deshmukh or Sushilkumar Shinde — are not really the ideal choices, especially since their names have also been dragged into the Adarsh scam. The name of Union Minister of State Prithviraj Chauhan is being mentioned, apart from that of young Mukul Wasnik.
The party's image took a further beating after the cash-for-rally revelation on television in a conversation between State Congress president Manikrao Thakre and former Minister Satish Chaturvedi that was accidentally recorded. Mr. Thakre is also said to be on his way out.
What is needed now is someone who can take the party along and keep it together and not create more divisions or scandals. Choosing a new leader for Maharashtra is not easy, with the limited choices available and the enormous challenge of regaining the confidence of the people. Meanwhile, Mr. Chavan has wasted what was a golden opportunity as a relatively young leader to take the State forward with a credible government — instead of reducing his tenure to a saga of scams.