Not many tears can be shed over Vilasrao Deshmukh's departure as Maharashtra's chief minister. If anything remotely positive at all can be said of his tenure, it is that he perfected - to twist Lewis Carroll a little - the art of running in the same place. The state showed little sign of economic recovery during the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party's governance, and the capital city Mumbai continued to languish in comparison to the southern novas. The buzz that made the city and state what they were continued to remain elusive. Truly, the only one who could have been happy during Deshmukh's chief ministership was his son Ritesh, whose debut Hindi film had the kind of media hype even superstars crave but seldom get.
But then Deshmukh and his band of merry men have been a disappointment since the day they were sworn in, and even given the distance between Mumbai and New Delhi it cannot have taken Congress president Sonia Gandhi 34 long months to realise that her man was a dullard in office whatever be his other merits. This was also not the first time that a determined effort had been made by Deshmukh's detractors to prise him out of office - if they failed all this while it surely was not for lack of trying.
The latest sally against Deshmukh succeeded not because of their exertions but because of his counterpart in the neighboring state of Gujarat. Ultimately, Deshmukh paid the price for being too close to the epicenter of the Hindutva laboratory. Those who blithely took shelter behind platitudes like 'our state could never go that way,' referring to Gujarat, forget 1995 when Maharashtra, limping from the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1992-93 and the Mumbai serial blasts of March 1993, voted for the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party.
Even in the election held in 2000, this pre-poll alliance garnered more seats than either the Congress party or the NCP, both of which fought against each other as much against the incumbent saffron combine. They came together as the Progressive Democratic Front not so much to give the state the government it deserves and needs, but to keep the 'communal forces' out of power.
That task, Modi proved in nearby Gandhinagar, was beyond the present dispensation. Rumblings across the Congress landscape began when Gujarat plumped for Modi, but Sonia Gandhi waited till he made his triumphant entry into Mumbai's Hindu heartland before making her move.
In the din over Hindutva, let us not allow the significance of what she has wrought get drowned out. In a state that has seen social reformers like Jyotiba Phule, in a state that gave the country B R Ambedkar, a member of the Scheduled Castes has never before been anointed chief minister - despite the fact that the Congress party of yore, which ruled Maharashtra for most of its history, swore by their welfare. It has taken the Italian-born Congress president to rectify this anomaly.
Was it trust in the non-controversial Shinde regardless of his caste background that forced her hand? Or, through a process of intellectual osmosis did it somehow sink in that if there was a way to fight the looming electoral battles against a reinvigorated BJP there was no other way but to take a leaf out of her mother in law's brand of politics?
The jury is out on that one, if only because the exalted president of the oldest political party in India is not in the habit of sharing her mental cogitations beyond those of her inner circle - and the media ranks nowhere in that critical mass. Still, even if the change of guard she has brought about was done unwittingly, the wisdom behind the move needs to be appreciated.
Indira Gandhi got it right. She knitted together a political quilt with strands from the Dalits, Muslims, Other Backward Classes and ensured that the Brahmins and Thakurs shared it too, never mind if it was a bit uncomfortable. She swore by secularism and socialism - and yet routinely made the rounds of temples and other shrines. In her time secularism had not become the four letter word it did under her intellectually challenged son.
The Congress party lost its hold on the political discourse under Rajiv Gandhi's leadership, and has since been struggling to regain it. While the Muslims and OBCs abandoned the Congress for Mulayam Singh and Company, the Scheduled Castes found a messiah in Kanshi Ram. The remaining Hindus found the BJP to be a better bet, which has left the initiator of India's national movement as a party of leaders with no followers.
So far Sonia Gandhi has not covered herself with encomiums for either her style or her substance. Maybe she has learnt her lesson; or it could be a mere fluke that she chose a Dalit to lead Maharashtra into its toughest electoral battle due 18 months hence. But it is the kind of gamble her mother-in-law would have approved.
Gujarat showed the folly of combating BJP's radical Hindutva with soft Hindutva. If the voter could have the real thing why would he settle for the ersatz one? Gujarat was also an unusual case, and Modi's magic would have pulverized any gambit the Congress party could have come up with.
But the other provinces that are scheduled to go to polls this year - Himachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi - are a different arena altogether, and there's no reason why Moditva cannot be halted.
For this, what the Congress needs to do is to rediscover its winning combination. The churning that is going on in society need not entirely beneficial to the BJP; often, its victory has come by default, when the Congress has allowed itself to be worsted. The Dalits, Muslims and other minorities, OBCs and sections of the Hindu population on who the BJP's politics sits uncomfortably, would return to the Congress fold once again if only the party showed its determination to fight the BJP not on terms chosen by it but on neutral territory.
Who knows, the selection of a Dalit as Maharashtra chief minister could be the long awaited sign that Sonia Gandhi means business this time.