As the political drama over Ajit Pawar's resignation played out today, a section of Congressmen attempted to project it as “Advantage Congress” in that the party had managed to snare its ally of 13 years, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), in a series of corruption charges that may have upset equations in the Sharad Pawar-led party.
However, this advantage may not necessarily transfer to chief minister Prithiviraj Chavan just yet, they said.
Chavan, whose untainted and credible image salvaged the party in the wake of the Adarsh scam in 2010, may not have seen the end of the Ajit Pawar saga, which sources say, could play out to his disadvantage in the coming weeks, especially if the miffed Ajit Pawar decides to up the ante. “Now that Ajit is not part of the government, he is not under Constitutional obligations to maintain decorum and confidentiality. It's quite likely that he and NCP ministers will take on the chief minister now,” said a senior Congress leader.
The publication of the white paper on irrigation expenditure is likely to be a battle of personal prestige between Chavan and Ajit Pawar. The latter made it clear today that he will not join the government till the white paper presents facts on the multi-crore scam while Chavan has already stated that the irrigation department, under the NCP stewardship, was not cooperating in preparing the white paper.
Congressmen said that, inherent in Sharad Pawar's media statements this evening, was the implication that the inexplicably rising expenditures on dams could be explained away using different parameters. Should the white paper be less than explosive, for any reason, it will show up Chavan as Delhi's hand-picked man in Maharashtra going after the Pawars. Given Pawar's aggressive mood, tensions between the parties could escalate.
Secondly, though Congress ministers - with the exception of a notable powerful few - and most MLAs closed ranks behind Chavan on Thursday, it was more a show of strength than a genuine effort to firmly stand behind their chief minister, given that he enjoys less than complete confidence of his partymen and women. “Chavan is not the typical Congressman, he is too urbane and polished for state-level politicians who don't always understand or appreciate his agendas,” said a Delhi-based leader familiar with Chavan's style of functioning and politics while in the Prime Minister's Office.
Congressmen who watched their NCP counterparts burn Chavan's effigies last couple of days would have preferred to give it back, but Chavan's insistence that Congressmen must not respond or rise to the bait came as a surprise. The CM's gesture may have calmed the situation but it also showed that we weren't willing “to take the fight to the streets” which could send out wrong signals, said a minister who wondered if Chavan's style would affect the party's electoral prospects if he led it into the next election.
Thirdly, though Chavan himself cannot be accused of wrongdoing and corruption, he has cabinet colleagues like Rajendra Darda against whom the NCP could start a counter-campaign. The Darda brothers names - Rajendra and Vijay - came up in the coal block allocation scandal earlier this month. It would be untenable for the party to allow Darda to continue in cabinet and run an anti-corruption campaign targeting NCP leaders, said Congress sources.
Chavan could not be reached for his comments but sources close to him said that he enjoyed unparalleled confidence of party president Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and top-rung leaders who had decided in 2010 that he was their best man in Mumbai, and that if he is entrusted with another assignment it would be because his services are needed in Delhi. Ajit Pawar's resignation drama may have earned him a few more weeks, or months, in Mumbai but it would be a temporary “advantage”, the challenges to his leadership and, indeed, to the Congress will become more fierce from now onwards.