There is quiet a bit of history behind NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s recent outburst about the Maharashtra chief minister, says Neeta Kolhatkar
When former Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan was forced to resign after the Adarsh Society scam became a public embarrassment for the Congress party, two names were doing rounds for the top job in the state. I was in touch with the man tipped to take over in all likelihood, Prithviraj Chavan. Till the last minute he maintained that he wouldn’t like to get stuck in Maharashtra, as he had all along been active on the national political scene. Moreover, he would have to bear the brunt of the mess left behind, and he knew the so-called clean-up wouldn’t be smooth.
I had asked Chavan about the other name in the fray and he confirmed it more or less, with the usual rider that the “high command” was the final decision-maker.
The fact is that Sonia Gandhi prevailed. But Congress leaders in Maharashtra didn’t take the decision to send Chavan to Maharashtra too well, the effect of which we still see playing out in the state. Moreover, the Democratic Front government’s ally, Nationalist Congress Party, was definitely not keen that Chavan come to Maharashtra. There were plenty of reasons, primary one being the dominance the NCP continued to have over previous chief ministers, thus bulldozing its way through many decisions which Congress leaders at the national level saw as a derailment of many of their schemes.
But the decision was sealed. The Congress did not want to lose its hold over Maharashtra at all cost. Chavan, despite his deep anxiety over coming to the state, took on the risk. For one, of dealing with state-level politics while he had a national vision, and for another, of leaving political Delhi and staying in Maharashtra. The one example before him was none other than Sharad Pawar, who after being defence minister returned to the state as chief minister, and it took him a while to return to New Delhi.
The mood in Maharashtra over Chavan’s appointment was mixed.
For me personally, it was good to know that one Delhi source was now here, right on home ground. The fact is Chavan has his ear to the ground, whether in Delhi or Maharashtra. Yes, he was a slow, but thorough, learner. His initial frustration was obvious. Dealing with all sorts of leaders, many he may not even have heard of but who he now had to keep at an arm’s length. Still others who were waiting to conspire against him, for the fear of not realising their devious plans and unsure of what lay in store.
For the first time, the state had a chief minister who was portrayed as a man with a ‘clean image’. Blame the national media for branding Chavan thus, but it was one hell of a benchmark he would have to stick to. Politics at the state-level is often petty, as the party always is bigger than the government. Politicians have never-ending demands to clear proposals at any cost. Moreover, it can take anyone a while to understand the factions within the Congress, all of which want a piece of the pie. Naturally, soon tongues had begun to wag, and three months down the line there were already predictions of a change of guard.
Meanwhile, the NCP had not taken kindly to the incumbent, especially Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar, who till now had a free hand at getting all his decisions through in the cabinet or past the chief minister. Not a man to listen to anyone, the distance between the chief and deputy was already demarcated, with the gap widening with every passing week. In the first year itself, Chavan sent a clear message out – clean up your act or face the consequences.
Having been in the Prime Minister’s Office, Chavan has been able to work with all the political parties. Slowly but steadily he began to tighten the loopholes in important legislations pertaining to Mumbai to ensure that different lobbies didn’t find escape routes like before to muscle in on various projects. He began with the most powerful lobby, builders. Chavan set an example of no hobnobbing with any builder in the corridors of Mantralaya, the state’s administrative headquarters. (But that hasn’t stopped a few bureaucrats and ministers from meeting them at five-star coffee shops and hotels). However, at least the real public that comes to meet ministers with genuine grievances now get a hearing rather than wait for days.
The second-most important thing Chavan did was to ensure that the post of chief minister remained the most powerful. That even the deputy CM has to take an appointment to meet him was a change that hasn’t gone down well with the NCP, and Ajit Pawar in particular. This was one tricky task for Chavan, to keep the ally with him but at the same time not to allow them to become more powerful than the Congress. And in the last two years, the relationship has hit a rocky patch. Now Chavan has to deal with a miffed Sharad Pawar as well.
One by one, Chavan has been tackling the so-called corrupt departments with the NCP -- irrigation, public works and the latest being home. RR Patil was heard complaining that all postings and transfers of police officers from inspector up will now be cleared by the CM. Chavan has systematically followed up on the intent of the Congress high command to clean up Maharashtra. In public perception at least, corruption has been on the decrease.
But the Congress cadre is as upset as the NCP, because no personal file or project is being okayed by the CM. Only projects of public interest are accepted, and that only after due diligence. Chavan, on the few occasions I’ve spoken to him, has shared that one needs to be a lot more alert than before. The Right to Information Act has enabled the public to get all information on the government’s decision-making and hence ministers would have be a lot more responsible. Chavan also shared that the anger among the public has been on the rise which civil society leaders were capitalising on, and which could prove to tough for politicians come elections.
As a result of his daunting clean-up, Chavan has taken time to clear files and take decisions that impact public projects -- a complaint that was publicly aired by Sharad Pawar the other day. Till now, Chavan and Pawar have shared a fine equation, but the fact is Chavan’s style of functioning hasn’t gone down well with the man who left behind a strong legacy in Maharashtra. The frustrations in their relationship have become evident. Sharad Pawar has taken a stand of publicly supporting his nephew, to whom Chavan has given the cold shoulder.
The NCP has been growing in strength in Maharashtra, something that is a cause of concern to the Congress. Right now, Chavan is ensuring that the party’s image in the public eye in Maharashtra is cleansed, and that his own party members and leaders don’t get a chance to derail his plans. The next few months in the run-up to the elections are going to be important for the Congress-NCP alliance. There could surely be some more heartburn breaking out.
Image: Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan