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Congress eyes dy CM's post in Maharashtra

By PRASANNA D ZORE
June 16, 2020 10:33 IST
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'Who else will solve these issues if not the chief minister?'
'Who else shall we take our complaints to?'

IMAGE: Ashok Chavan, left, with Uddhav Thackeray, centre, and Sharad Pawar, right, during the discussions to form the Maha Vikas Aghadi government in Maharashtra. Photograph: ANI

With ministers from the Congress in the Uddhav Thackeray government going on record with their grievances about how the party feels neglected and sidelined in the Maha Vikas Aghadi government, the Congress appears to be setting the stage for appointment of its own deputy chief minister in Maharashtra, three senior Congress leaders, including a minister in the Thackeray ministry, tell Rediff.com.

Cabinet Ministers Ashok Chavan and Balasaheb Thorat -- who is also the Maharashtra Congress party president -- who were scheduled to meet the chief minister on Monday, postponed the meeting after the chief minister's father-in-law Madhav Patankar passed away on Monday, June 15.

Both leaders have voiced their concerns about not feeling equal partners in the three-party MVA, which was formed by the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress last November.

On record, discussions are limited to equal sharing of seats for the Maharashtra Legislative Council election -- the current formula paves the way for five Shiv Sena, four NCP and three Congress MLCs; while the Congress demand is for four MLCs each.

Congress ministers are also upset with senior bureaucrats like Maharashtra Chief Secretary Ajoy Mehta and the allocation of development funds for assembly members belonging to all three MVA constituents.

Some senior Congress leaders have begun to speak about fulfilling "certain promises" that were made when the MVA was being cobbled together and "correcting the imbalance" that set in after the Maharashtra government was formed.

The two most contentious issues, according to Congress leaders Rediff.com's Prasanna D Zore spoke to remain the position of a second deputy chief ministership and the extension given to Chief Secretary Ajoy Mehta.

Mehta, who was due for retirement in September 2019, got his first extension for six months till March 31 to oversee the election to the Maharashtra assembly. Since then he got another extension for three months to handle the COVID-19 pandemic on the Maharashtra chief minister's request.

"When the MVA was being shaped, nobody talked about who had how many numbers. The common agenda was to form a non-BJP government in the state with equal participation from all the three parties," says a senior Congress leader, who is also a minister in the Thackeray government, speaking on condition that he would not be identified by name for this report.

The Congress has 44 MLAs, the NCP 54 MLAs, the Shiv Sena 56 MLAs.

The "imbalance" hinted by this minister is the absence of a Congress deputy chief minister.

Ajit Pawar of the NCP, who also handles the finance portfolio, is also the state's deputy chief minister.

"As of now, there is some imbalance in the composition of the government," the minister said. "Balasaheb (Thorat; the state's revenue minister) and (Ashok) Chavanji (minister for public works department) are giving air to grievances of their fellow ministers and party leaders," the Congress leader adds.

The Congress plan seems to speak from multiple platforms, venting their neglect in the MVA government, and in turn, put across its demand for the position of a second deputy CM for Maharashtra.

Last month, former Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan went public with his unhappiness about the way the chief minister was functioning in the state.

And now, two senior colleagues of the chief minister want to meet Thackeray to discuss issues of "imbalance" in the government set-up, says another Congress leader.

"It is in this context that one must read the Congress's intentions," says this Congress leader also asking not to be named.

"While political issues will be handled by those outside the government, those in the government will have issues about governance and administration which they will be discussing with Thackeray," says the minister.

Highlighting issues of governance, these Congress leaders complain about bureaucratic defiance and non-cooperation with Congress ministers.

"There are many senior bureaucrats in this government who do not have the confidence of their ministers or where ministers feel that they are not cooperating with them. Who else will solve these issues if not the chief minister? Who else shall we take our complaints to?" asks another Congress leader explaining why the ministers want to meet Thackeray.

Ask the Congress leader -- not the minister -- if Maharashtra is likely to witness some top-level bureaucratic transfers owing to the way the civil servants are said to be not cooperating with ministers, he says, "We can only take our grievances to the chief minister. I am sure he will listen to our pleas patiently."

"I don't think this is a difficult issue," he says about the issue of bureaucratic transfers.

Chief Secretary Ajoy Mehta, who was the BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation commissioner during the earlier BJP-Shiv Sena regime, is in the crosshairs of the Congress leaders.

"We are just expressing our unhappiness over the way some bureaucrats are acting," says the Congress minister.

"He was the BMC commissioner for quite some time when the BJP-Shiv Sena were ruling the state," the second Congress leader said.

"Since he was the BMC commissioner for so long it is possible that they (Thackeray and Mehta) could have developed a good relationship," he adds.

All this happened because an imbalance had set in right at the time the MVA government was formed, claims the leader quoted earlier.

"If there were two deputy chief ministers -- and that indeed was the original plan -- this issues would not have cropped up," he says.

"At that time, the Congress compromised by accepting the post of speaker of the Maharashtra assembly. If we were given the second post of deputy CM, this imbalance would not have set in," he adds, clearly indicating why the Congress is meeting the chief minister.

Nana Patole, who switched to the Congress from the BJP, was elected assembly speaker. Given his aggressive leadership and anti-BJP stance, Patole is being touted to become the Maharashtra Congress president replacing Thorat.

"Congress workers clearly feel there is a gap there and must be filled," he says about the post of second deputy chief minister for the state. "People must feel there is equality among all the three partners."

However, he is not too hopeful that the meeting with Thackeray will bring to fruition the Congress hopes of getting its own deputy chief minister.

The other contentious issue simmering in the Congress is regarding the funds allocated to constituencies of each and every MLA.

"We have encountered that the large amounts of funds have been diverted to only few people (from the Shiv Sena and NCP)," complains the third Congress leader.

"We want the government to take all major decisions in consultation with the Congress. Most of the portfolios dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic are with the Shiv Sena and NCP," he says explaining the feeling of being sidelined within the MVA.

"We want to know tell the chief minister that this is what our feeling is. We have certain demands, certain reservations that must be acknowledged," adds the Congress minister.

"We want proper allocation of power; certain bureaucrats are working without giving due to the ministers holding the portfolios," he says.

Returning to the issue of alleged high-handedness by the chief secretary leading to resentment, the third Congress leader says, "There is a limit to how much you can give attention to one bureaucrat; it actually is an injustice to other bureaucrats."

"They also have their ambitions in their careers. At the end of their career, they should be holding that particular post (chief secretary). So when you give extension after retirement, then you are basically meting out injustice to all others," reasons the third Congress leader.

"We are not interested in making it a prestigious show. And being the chief secretary doesn't mean that he can do whatever he wants. This is the feeling shared by other ministers as well from other parties. It's not only the Congress that is feeling that way," he says.

Former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, who is in Mumbai for a party meeting, flatly refuses that the Congress is eyeing the position of a second deputy chief minister in the state.

"There is no question of eyeing that position. It will be a routine discussion between the two parties which are part of the MVA," says Chavan.

"We will be submitting a few proposals to the chief minister about governance and administration. We have been discussing things, but it is nothing like what the media is speculating on," Chavan adds.

"This meeting should not be seen as a confrontation," Chavan points out. "We have some proposals which we will submit to the CM. I don't know why this meeting has assumed so much importance."

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PRASANNA D ZORE / Rediff.com
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