The decision of the Congress to nominate Prithviraj Chavan as Chief Minister seems aimed at increasing the party's dominance in western Maharashtra and consolidating its weakening hold on a region where its ally too has a strong presence. It also brings back Maratha politics to the forefront in the State and could possibly revive the issue of reservation for the Marathas as Other Backward Classes (OBCs).

The Congress' partner, the Nationalist Congress Party, jumped at the chance to change its own leadership and replaced its Legislature Party head and Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal with Union Minister Sharad Pawar's nephew Ajit Pawar. Mr. Bhujbal was understandably upset for he has worked hard to consolidate the OBC base not only in Maharashtra but also in the rest of the country. In the last Lok Sabha elections, the NCP won eight seats; only three were from western Maharashtra. Four were from other parts of the State, including Mumbai, and those elected were OBCs, including Mr. Bhujbal's nephew, Sameer, from Nashik.

Before the elections, there was a strong agitation by the Marathas, propelled by the NCP, to demand reservation as OBCs, a demand that has been rejected time and again by the State Backward Classes Commission. Mr. Bhujbal too has opposed this demand consistently. Again this year, he campaigned for including OBCs in the census and was successful.

The NCP is primarily a party of Marathas who dominate public life and institutions in the State. To have a person within the party opposing the Maratha reservation issue has certainly not gone down well. In addition, there was the campaign for the OBC census. All this could have worked against Mr. Bhujbal, who left the Shiv Sena on the question of reservation. Political analysts say the consolidation of the OBC vote would have helped the party in the future but now things don't look so good.

The removal of Mr. Bhujbal has sparked off disappointment among OBCs and their leaders, especially since the mantle of Deputy Chief Minister has fallen on Mr. Ajit Pawar, a powerful Maratha from western Maharashtra. Such a move would not be good for social equations in the State, activists argued. In 2009 — faced with falling fortunes in western Maharashtra, the Congress-NCP combine won only six Lok Sabha seats, down from nine it had in 2004 — the Congress decided to continue with a Maratha leader, Ashok Chavan. Now another Maratha — this time from Karad, Satara — Prithviraj Chavan is expected to consolidate that region, which is fractious and discontented.

It must be remembered that Mr. Pawar's family too originally hails from Satara and later moved to Pune, but having a Chief Minister from the same place must be too close for comfort. In addition, Mr. Chavan and Mr. Pawar are not known to have a cordial relationship. Mr. Pawar's Lok Sabha constituency Madha has portions of Satara and Solapur.

It's a regional battle of dominance which the Congress believes will consolidate its position in the State among its most powerful and developed part and also instil confidence in the dominant community — the Marathas. And in this battle, the OBCs can be temporarily dispensed with. What perhaps the NCP may have underestimated is Mr. Bhujbal's abilities to fight back. Since his OBC leadership is not confined to Maharashtra he will try to consolidate his position not only in the State but also in the country.

Right now there is no immediate election and no need for votes but four years down the line perhaps the party may realise its mistake in sidelining Mr. Bhujbal, especially if the move for Maratha consolidation in western Maharashtra doesn't work as anticipated.

Prithviraj Chavan's nomination aimed at increasing Congress dominance in western Maharashtra