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Pankaj Vohra, Hindustan Times
December 08, 2008
The decision of the Congress leadership to appoint Ashok Chavan as the Chief Minister of Maharashtra appears to be prompted by its obsession to contain the state’s top leader and close ally Sharad Pawar. In the process, the party seems to have lost sight of the fact that it may have done more damage to itself and helped Pawar  consolidate his position even further.

The fault does not lie with Ashok Chavan, an upcoming leader in Maharashtra and has achieved, for the first time in the state, the unprecedented feat of holding the position his father S.B.Chavan held. He is happy and his predecessor Vilasrao Deshmukh is perhaps even happier that he was able to keep his main rival Narayan Rane out. In any case, Rane’s days in the party he joined after leaving the Shiv Sena seem to be numbered (he was suspended on Saturday). It is most unlikely that he will be forgiven for what he said about his colleagues especially when knives are out for him. To add insult to injury, he has said that some powerful people in Delhi including a Union Minister and a top Congress functionary are baying for his blood ``for speaking the truth". 

However, where the Congress has faltered is that in its over-enthusiasm to contain Pawar whose understanding of Maharshtra politics is far greater than anybody else, it has failed to take note of the ground reality. The Congress vote bank in the state essentially compromises backwards, dalits and minorities. The party may have produced several Maratha leaders but no one can hold a candle to Pawar by a long shot. The political gossip in the state was that even Vilasrao, who was considered an adversary of Pawar given his background of being close to S.B.Chavan and some others, eventually got extremely close to him while in power.

Therefore, to expect Ashok Chavan to neutralise Pawar would be a political folly. Chavan has been made the CM superseding many of his seniors and there is a sizable section within the state that feels that since the party had earlier appointed  Manikrao Thakre, also a Maratha as the MPCC chief, there was no pressing need to have a Maratha as the CM. In the complicated world of Congress politics in the state, Chavan’s dependence on Vilasrao would be immense and, therefore, the reasons why a change was brought about in Maharashtra may remain unresolved.

Things could have been handled better. The manner in which things have been dealt with suggests that the party may have become not only weaker but also divided. The only person who could have perhaps bailed the Congress out of the mess it was in could have been Sushil Kumar Shinde. But the leadership decided to retain him in the Delhi ministry. Shinde has the maximum potential which remains unutilised and he could even emerge as a better and bigger player on the centre stage if the circumstances favour him.

The opposition to his name apparently came from a section within the party who said that he enjoyed cordial relations with Pawar. A business house that wields considerable influence over some central leaders also reportedly was not in favour of passing the mantle to him.

But the Congress’s faulty thesis stems from the fact that it is aiming to take on its ally Pawar at the expense of ignoring its rivals, the BJP and Shiv Sena. In the politics that is evolving, the NCP has gained an upper hand—whether it was forcing Deshmukh to quit by precipitating matters with RR Patil’s resignation or by appointing Chagan Bhujbal as the deputy CM even before Congress could announce the CM’s name. If the recent zila parishad  election results are taken into consideration, the NCP is sitting very safely on top of the Congress. But insecure sycophants in the Congress continue to play on the Congress president’s mind that Pawar is dangerous since he had opposed her in the Working Committee and should be therefore contained. But all their manoeuvres are not likely to hem in the Maharashtra strongman.

Trouble is brewing for the Congress in Maharashtra and elsewhere. Unless a realistic view is taken, the party may be on the road to nowhere. Between us.