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The Battle for Maharashtra

Sawal chief minister ka

Amberish Kathewad Diwanji in New Delhi | October 16, 2004 17:50 IST
Last Updated: October 16, 2004 22:44 IST

The Congress won the battle to ensure that the Democratic Front -- consisting of the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party -- retained power in Maharashtra, but the victory is tinged with some bitterness.

Because a Congress member may not be the next chief minister.

In 1999, when the Congress and NCP tied up after the election to form the Democratic Front and stake claim to form the government, the Congress said that the CM should be from the larger part.

Slide Show: Kaun banega CM?

Then, the larger of the two was the Congress and from that party, Vilasrao Deshmukh became the CM.

The NCP had to settle for the post of deputy CM, taken by Chhagan Bhujbal.

Later, both were changed: Sushilkumar Shinde from the Congress became CM while NCP member Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil became his deputy.

The Congress used the same principle when it formed alliances in other states such as Karnataka. The exception was Jammu and Kashmir, where though it was the larger party, the Congress allowed the People's Democratic Party's Mufti Mohammed Sayeed to become the CM for the first three years; a Congress member will replace him for the remaining three years (the J&K assembly has a six-year term).

NCP chief and Food and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar categorically stated that he expected the Congress to follow this very same principle now. "After all, this 1999 principle was formulated by the Congress party, and even if a party has just one legislator more than the other, it gets the right to nominate the chief minister," he said.

For the Congress, this is becoming a major problem.

In fact, even in the morning when the Congress was leading with the largest number of seats and almost everyone believed that it would emerge as the largest party, the question was whether Shinde would stay on as CM or make way for Deshmukh.

The view from Delhi was that Shinde should continue for two reasons: first, he led the party back to victory and thus needed to be rewarded for his work; second, he is the only dalit CM that the Congress currently boasts of, and if it is to make a serious attempt to woo the dalit vote across India, it could ill-afford to move Shinde out.

Nevertheless, within the Congress in Maharashtra, there was strong opposition to Shinde becoming CM again while Deshmukh was ruled out after the Congress performed badly in Marathwada, from where he hails.

A name being touted within the Congress was that of Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office, Prithviraj Chavan, who was always seen as the dark horse in this battle.

Chavan has all the right credentials: he is a Maratha, he is from western Maharashtra (the most important region), hails from an extremely influential political family (both his parents were for years Congress members of Parliament), and above all, enjoys the confidence of Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

Moreover, Chavan is known to be extremely honest and bright, especially in dealing with financial matters, both important given the recent Telgi scandal that has tarnished the Congress' name and the financial mess in Maharashtra, which has run up a debt of a whopping Rs 97,000 crore.

But after it became clear that the NCP was the largest party, the equations changed, with various names from the NCP being looked at.

A suggestion was that Pawar himself might return to Maharashtra as CM and demand a huge package for the state. This would help him further strengthen the NCP in Maharashtra, thus giving him a chance to play a bigger role at the Centre some day in future.

But Pawar has flatly ruled out going back to Mumbai. "I committed a blunder once by going back in 1993. Then, I could not say no to (the then prime minister P V Narasimha) Rao and moreover, the situation in Mumbai was very bad (after the communal riots of December 1992-January 1993). But I won't do the same thing again. I now want to remain at the Centre," he said.

Another view gaining ground is that Pawar might let the Congress keep the CM's post, but seeks his pound of flesh elsewhere.

The reason the NCP will allow this is because it has no clear consensus candidate. Pawar has been floating a plethora of names: Jayant Patil, Padamsinh Patil, R R Patil, and Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil, all senior ministers in the outgoing government. Other names cropping up are that of Ajay Pawar, Sharad Pawar's nephew, and Praful Patel, currently Union minister of state for civil aviation and a trusted aide of Pawar.

Sources say one reason that Pawar keeps dropping so many names is to ensure that within his party, no single candidate emerges as the consensus candidate, who might then force Pawar to accept the legislators' demands.

Sources said Pawar might allow a Congress CM and in turn, demand a better ministerial berth. Officially, Pawar ruled out such a possibility saying he was happy being the food and agriculture minister, a post that he had sought out, but the sources pointed out that Pawar had always been keen to be the defence minister (a post he held earlier in the Narasimha Rao government).

The post of defence minister is one of the most sought after -- after that of the prime minister, and the ministers of home, finance, and external affairs.

The post will give him a hugely important national image besides making him a member of the most important cabinet committees. It is a berth that will help him change his current image of a regional leader confined to Maharashtra to that of a national leader.

Incidentally, this option might suit the Congress perfectly. For some days now, the party has been desperately looking for ways to drop Home Minister Shivraj Patil without losing face. The possibility now is that if Pawar is made defence minister, this might give Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the chance to shuffle the Cabinet.

If Pawar is made defence minister, the present defence minister, Pranab Mukherjee, now marked out as the Number 2 in the Cabinet, might be made the home minister. Alternatively, Mukherjee might be made finance minister (which he was many years ago and a post he has been eyeing) and the present finance minister, P Chidambaram, could be made the home minister.

Of course, Patil would be accommodated with some important sounding post in the Congress, but few doubt that his days in North Block are numbered.

If Pawar accepts this formula, then he might insist that Shinde continue as the CM. Shinde, a dalit from Solapur, poses no threat to the NCP's Maratha support. Moreover, Shinde and Pawar are friends who go back many years and remain so, even after Pawar quit the Congress to form the NCP.

What Pawar may not allow is a Maratha CM to emerge as a rival and threaten his party's support base from this largest caste group in Maharashtra. That effectively rules out both Chavan and Deshmukh (both Marathas).

Right now, Pawar is keeping his cards close to his chest. But his party members have made it clear they expect their pound of flesh.

The Congress too is hesitant about its next step even as its members insist that before going to the polls, it had been decided that the next CM would be from the Congress.

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