Strange bedfellows in Maharashtra

It is an impasse the Congress should have seen coming. The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) has been squabbling about the coalition in Maharashtra for a while and the two parties give the appearance of togetherness merely for the sake of clinging to power in the State. After Union Agriculture Minister and NCP president Sharad Pawar threw down the gauntlet to the Congress, the State party leaders have become more vocal about the poor governance and decision-making and lack of coordination within the Congress. On Friday, State NCP president Madhukar Pichad expressed the party’s unhappiness with the Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan specifically and some MLAs showed open defiance of the head of the State.

Mr. Pawar and Mr. Chavan are not exactly the best of friends and Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar is uneasy in the coalition. The Congress, fighting to restore its Adarsh-scam-tarnished image sent Mr. Chavan to clean up the mess in the State. Mr Chavan, faced with an unenviable task, went about it stodgily and put a clamp on projects he wasn’t so sure about. He scrapped some deals approved by his predecessor, Ashok Chavan, on slum redevelopment and insisted on the State getting a chunk of the redevelopment costs of projects, which usually go to private builders. Earlier this week, he even brought in a Housing Regulatory Authority and a law with some stringent provisions to redress grievances of the public against builders.

He also directed his lens on the NCP’s antics in the State. The NCP-controlled Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank got unfavourable reports from the Reserve Bank of India and in May 2011, the bank was placed under administrators. To say that Mr. Ajit Pawar was miffed is putting it mildly and he even skipped the centenary function of the bank last year in annoyance. The senior Mr. Pawar’s pet project Lavasa is also under fire for its numerous alleged illegalities and Mr. Chavan speedily ordered a white paper into the crores of rupees spent on irrigation in the State with little to show for it. The NCP controls the key portfolios of Finance, Home, Irrigation, Power and Planning since the coalition was formed in 1999 and the Congress has been unsuccessful in changing that pattern. Mr. Chavan has been speaking up against such key departments having been vested with a junior coalition partner to no avail.

Mudslinging, Chavan-baiting

Mudslinging and bickering have been part of the coalition, and ties have touched rock-bottom since Mr. Chavan took over in November 2011. Since March this year, Mr. Sharad Pawar too has lent his might to the Chavan-baiting by comparing him to the former Chief Minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, and happier times. If the action on the State’s apex bank ruffled feathers, the Chief Minister’s acceptance of the need for a white paper on irrigation worsened matters. For some months, social activists have pointed to huge illegalities in irrigation contracts awarded to one contractor and the Governor had to intervene in getting one of the contracts on the Kondhane dam cancelled. In addition, the Opposition is gunning for NCP leader and Water Resources Minister Sunil Tatkare, who is being accused of land-grabbing and setting up benami companies.

Home Minister R.R. Patil was forced into accepting at least a scrutiny of the documents against Mr. Tatkare by the Economic Offences Wing (EOW) of the police. Mr. Tatkare promised a white paper on irrigation by the winter session of the State legislature and refuted accusations even as another senior NCP Minister Chhagan Bhujbal is being charged with corruption in awarding contracts for building the Maharashtra Sadan in New Delhi. Mr. Bhujbal’s Mumbai Educational Trust (MET) was under the scanner by the EOW after a complaint by his former employee of fraud and misappropriation of funds. The EOW gave Mr. Bhujbal a clean chit in the MET matter last week.

The Opposition has been pressing for a CBI inquiry into the irrigation department to explain why spending thousands of crores has resulted in little increase in the irrigated area in the State. While the Congress has its Adarsh taint, the NCP is not exactly Snow White. There is constant whining that Mr. Chavan is not clearing files and allotting funds for district development. One of the concerns raised by the NCP at the Centre is the question of governance in Maharashtra and the worry over performance in the next general and Assembly polls in 2014.

Neither strong enough alone

In the build-up to the 2014 elections, both parties need to decide if at all they want to continue in such an unhappy alliance or outwit each other. Going by past performances, neither party looks capable of winning enough seats on its own to form a government. The NCP has, off the record, said it could explore fresh allies but this is easier said than done. The constant recriminations against each other must be resolved if there has to be even a semblance of good governance in the State. Issues between coalition partners cannot surmount those of the administration and the people. Amid their fight to stay in power, those who voted for them in the first place are almost forgotten.

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Printable version | Jun 24, 2021 3:26:44 AM |

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