At the recently concluded India Economic Summit, Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh came as close as he could to admitting how hard it was to run a coalition government in which every minister functioned as though he was a king regardless of the seats his party brought to the coalition table; the difficulties in evolving a coherent government policy when all ministers demanded exceptions from it as their right; and how difficult decision-making was when little or no collective thinking went into it.
To most he sounded resigned to his fate, which is just as well. There are so many contenders for his job in his own party, it is actually the coalition partners who are keeping Deshmukh in place. Maharashtra is an absorbing study in coalition politics. Unlike Kerala where the arithmetic is so precise that smaller parties can afford to desert a coalition only at their peril, in Maharashtra, a smart partner can dictate a lot including the choice of chief minister and the decisions he takes. Add to this Sharadrao Pawar's personality that looms behind Deshmukh like a benign banyan tree that nevertheless grows ruthlessly, and you can understand Deshmukh's lament better.
The Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party has 71 MLAs and the Congress has 69 in a House of 288. The other allies are the Republican Party of India (Athawale) that has one seat and the Communist Party of India-Marxist that has three. In return for letting the Congress have the chief ministership despite having bigger numbers, the NCP periodically lets the high command in Delhi know that a change of chief minister needs their consent. If the high command appears to persist, a situation is created where it cannot move ahead.
Deshmukh has served two stints as chief minister: one from October 1999 to January 2003; and then from November 2004 till date. Union Power Minister Sushilkumar Shinde has served the intervening period. Oddly enough, NCP has never laid a claim to the post. Why would that be? Well, Pawar, arguably the tallest Maratha leader Maharashtra has had since Shivaji and Yashwantrao Chavan, has just launched his daughter Supriya in politics.
He needs a strong Maratha leader to compete with her like a hole in the head. A token Maratha leader, that's another matter. Deshmukh fits the bill nicely. This is why periodically there are reports that state minister Patangrao Kadam, Ashok Chavan (son of former Home Minister S B Chavan) or Union Minister of State in the PMO, Prithviraj Chavan -- all Marathas -- could replace Deshmukh.
Narayan Rane, also a Maratha, who crossed the floor from the Shiv Sena to join the Congress is another challenger. With him Rane brought seven MLAs. Six have been re-elected, taking the Congress's tally to 75, so Rane has a claim on the top job. But Pawar doesn't need to worry about him. He knows that the minute the government decides to take action on the Srikrishna Commission Report, Rane will not last one day in government.
The two top Maharashtra Congress leaders in touch with New Delhi, party chief Prabha Rau and Congress General Secretary Margaret Alva, frequently feel compelled to complain about Deshmukh's proximity to Pawar.
The last time was earlier this week when a letter about the slow implementation of the Prime Minister's Vidarbha package purporting to have been written by Alva found its way to newspaper offices. Before this, when it seemed that the Union government was falling on the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement, once again the AICC was abuzz with reports that Deshmukh was being replaced. By whom? Sushilkumar Shinde, the grapevine said. Why? There was no convincing answer.
But you can work it out. If the government at the Centre goes, Shinde loses his job. So, why not create a vacancy in the state? However, each time there have been such rumours, nothing has come out of them. There are two reasons for this. One, Deshmukh, during his last stint in Delhi as general secretary in the party (when he was turfed out of Mantralaya and Varsha, the CM's official residence) has had an opportunity to play the Byzantine politics of Delhi.
He has made friends, signed IOUs and created a system of advisors who are delegated the charge of camping in Delhi to advocate his case with his party. Second, with Pawar by your side, how can you ever go wrong? Like in all the other states run by the Congress, in Maharashtra too, the chief minister is always at most risk from the party organisation. Deshmukh's biggest enemy is not the BJP-Shiv Sena combine. It is not the NCP, however much he may grumble about them. The enemy is his own party.