NATIONAL

Political temperature drops in Maharashtra

MUMBAI OCT. 13. The political temperature in Maharashtra dropped considerably within minutes of the State Congress chief, Ranjit Deshmukh, saying in Delhi that he "never issued an ultimatum" to the Nationalist Congress Party but only asked it to clarify its stand on the issue of foreign origin of Sonia Gandhi. In fact, the NCP's national spokesman, Praful Patel, MP, saw it as "a wise step."

The NCP, in fact, saw in Mr. Deshmukh's retraction a calibrated step by the Congress to defuse the situation as survival of the coalition Government in Maharashtra was quite important to both the parties.

This step by Mr. Deshmukh in New Delhi, where he was summoned by Ms. Gandhi, is seen as the Congress blinking first after two days of aggressive statements which saw the Congress Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Sushilkumar Shinde, demanding that the NCP show some restraint being in a coalition and not belittle the Congress leader. In fact, he is known to have begun a backroom operation in which he even tried to ask some of the NCP leaders to tone down their "anti-Sonia rhetoric" and the NCP insisted that it would not give up its basic stand.

What remained unexplained, however, was that when the NCP was hoping to tieup an electoral understanding with the Congress in Gujarat against the BJP, it had then said that Sonia Gandhi as a foreign-born person was not an issue at the Assembly-level hustings.

The fact is that the Congress and the NCP are only in a post-poll alliance in Maharashtra since 1999 after a bitter, acrimonious campaign that year — they have been fighting it out elsewhere, despite a much smaller strength and support base for the NCP outside Maharashtra — and the line that "despite our clear, unchanging stand on Ms. Gandhi's foreign origin" was once again rubbed in by Mr. Praful Patel. He welcomed the "clarification" by Mr. Deshmukh but also described it as "withdrawal of the ultimatum". Political points, other NCP sources said, "will now continue to be scored till the next elections without jeopardising the Government here."

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