IT WAS NO accident that it was the Nationalist Congress Party president, Sharad Pawar, who announced that his controversial man in the Congress-NCP coalition Government in Maharashtra, Chhagan Bhujbal, was stepping down. As a man well versed in the politician's craft of cutting one's losses in good time, Mr. Pawar could be trusted to have understood that after the multi-crore fake stamp paper scam broke out, Mr. Bhujbal had become a liability. It was only a matter of time before the NCP president found a way of letting Mr. Bhujbal make as dignified an exit as possible. The despicable attack by Mr. Bhujbal's storm troopers on a television media channel provided just the excuse. Whether these vandals were agents provocateurs or were over-zealous defenders of Mr. Bhujbal's reputation, they certainly created an occasion that was quietly seized upon by the NCP leadership to ask the Deputy Chief Minister to put in his papers. On his part, an appropriately gratified Chief Minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde, lost no time in accepting his deputy's resignation. However, it is farcical on Mr. Bhujbal's part to make out that he was so outraged by the goons' assault on the media that he scripted his own exit from the State Cabinet.

Mr. Bhujbal may have once been a useful lieutenant to Mr. Pawar but he was not a pretty advertisement for the Congress-NCP reluctant partnership that worked, just barely. Good governance has been the most obvious casualty of the coalition government in this industrially vibrant State. The Telgi stamp paper scam only underlined the creeping rot. As Home Minister, Mr. Bhujbal was perceived to be unreceptive to the idea of a thorough professional investigation in the scam. Now that he has moved out of Mantralaya, it is imperative that the Maharashtra Government get serious about bringing to book not merely those who directly operated the scam but also those who connived with and benefited from the scamsters' criminal ingenuity. Whether it is the Centre's Central Bureau of Investigation or the State's own Special Investigation Team that carries out the probe, citizens need to be reassured that the law has sufficient teeth and the law-enforcers the requisite will to nail the criminal masterminds behind the scam.

With Mr. Bhujbal's departure, the Congress-NCP coalition Government has got rid of its least likeable symbol of the four-year-old incumbency. The State is due for Assembly elections, along with the Lok Sabha polls, in September 2004. The coalition already has a new Chief Minister and it should be possible for the two parties to make a reasonable go at dissolving the negatives the State Government has accumulated. Although the coalition is anchored in harsh political realities, the two parties have not yet generated even the minimum of synergy; rather they have been sniping at each other at regular intervals, mostly in connection with the Congress president's foreign origin. In the process, the concept of coalition dharma has been given a distinct Maharashtrian flavour. On account of this lack of political synergy, the two parties remain vulnerable to the same electoral fragmentation that in the first place compelled them to come together after the 1999 Assembly elections. Meanwhile, the Shiv Sena and its junior ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party, have smelt blood and are on the political offensive. Most independent observers believe that if the Congress-NCP act were not cleaned up soon enough, the Shiv Sena would make a triumphant return to power. The only way the Congress and the NCP can hope to put up a decent fight is by giving in to the inevitability of a pre-poll alliance. That would mean the two top leaders, Sonia Gandhi and Mr. Pawar, will have to climb down from their pedestals. Mr. Bhujbal's exit provides an opportunity to rework the alliance chemistry.

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