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It's lonely at the top for Ashok Chavan

Meena Menon
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He has none to help whenever he faces Opposition criticism

It is getting lonely at the top for Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan.

Facing a barrage of allegations from the Opposition on Mumbai slum redevelopment schemes during the monsoon legislature session that ended on July 27, Mr. Chavan had no one to turn to. His own Ministers are suspected to have leaked crucial information on land deals favouring certain builders to Eknath Khadse, Leader of the Opposition, who flaunted it in the House.

Mr. Chavan did not promise an inquiry into scams involving Rs. 50,000 crore, though later he said he was not averse to a probe. However, matters remain unresolved.

Mr. Chavan's problems do not stop there. For some time now, the coalition government has hit a rocky patch. At a Cabinet meeting last month, differences reached a flashpoint, with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) Ministers accusing Mr. Chavan of high-handedness and failure to clear their files on time. Mr. Chavan's method of functioning has come in for much criticism both from his detractors in the Congress and the NCP.

At that Cabinet meeting, the trigger was provided by some remarks made earlier by Congress spokesperson Hussain Dalwai, who accused NCP Minister for Rural Development Jayant Patil of engineering riots at Sangli. NCP Ministers aired various problems about the files of their departments not being cleared.

Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal of the NCP, too, is miffed at his pet project to redevelop the Secretariat complex hanging fire. Mr. Chavan is refusing to let the Public Works Department, headed by Mr. Bhujbal, undertake the redevelopment. And the NCP's litany of woes is endless.

On the issue of the Babli barrage too, a senior Minister pointed out that there was little discussion on the matter, and Mr. Chavan only met senior NCP Ministers who handle the portfolios of Home and Water Resources. The Maharashtra-Karnataka border issue was not really thrashed out, and everyone was bewildered by Mr. Chavan's contradictory statements in the Legislative Council, where he demanded that the Marathi-speaking areas in Karnataka be made a Union Territory and later said nothing in the resolution passed in the Assembly.

The Opposition leaders too got to know at the last minute that the issue of the Union Territory would not be placed before the meeting with the Prime Minister. There seems little attempt at taking the Cabinet into confidence on important issues, and there is constant bickering with the NCP.

However, as soon as Mr. Chavan took over in the wake of the November 26 terror strike, he had admitted that one of his challenges would be to head a coalition government and strike a balance between the two parties. He is Chief Minister now for the second time and spear-headed the Congress's successful performance in the Lok Sabha as well as Assembly elections in 2009.

The party high command allowed him to continue to head the State despite a strong challenge from Revenue Minister Narayan Rane and the former Chief Minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, who is a Union Minister now.

Mr. Rane is still creating trouble for Mr. Chavan, though he denies it vehemently, and Mr. Chavan's style of functioning is not helping matters.

There have been noises from certain sections of the NCP that it should stop being a coalition partner. Ratnakar Mahajan, a former close aide of NCP president Sharad Pawar, has resigned from the party. Earlier Mr. Mahajan had demanded a merger of both the Congress and the NCP. The party, which had given a lot of importance to Mr. Mahajan and made him executive chairperson of the State Planning Board, now has no use for him. Mr. Pawar too ignored his demand for a merger.

It is quite clear that the NCP will remain a separate entity, and coalitions have come to stay as Mr. Chavan had once remarked. Power-sharing comes with its own set of exigencies, and Mr. Chavan's position is not enviable. He has to face opposition from within his party as well as his coalition partner. In the midst of all this political backstabbing and power games, it is the State's administration and development that are the casualties. Mumbai is poised to be a global city, as the Chief Minister often points out, and Maharashtra still leads in industrial investment.

Poor governance

Political squabbling and the fight for money and power between the coalition partners have resulted in poor governance. Core issues such as the agrarian crisis, poverty alleviation, affordable housing, public health and infrastructure development are hanging fire. Mr. Khadse's allegations, supported by mounds of paperwork, show that the powerful lobby of builders is paramount, and it is turning Mumbai into a city of “vertical slums” as one senior Minister described it. Irregularities in slum redevelopment and a housing policy which favours builders go against the democratic grain. Affordable housing is a distant dream for many in the city, and it cannot be addressed by building rental accommodation on the outskirts, as the government proposes to do. The people of Maharashtra have given a mandate for the third time to the Congress-NCP coalition. This is not the moment to fritter the chance away.


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