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A new cast in the wings

india Updated: Aug 06, 2007 03:28 IST
Pankaj Vohra

Changes in the Congress leadership in Maharashtra and Delhi seem to be on the cards, with the central leadership set to decide on replacements for Vilasrao Deshmukh and Sheila Dikshit. Hectic lobbying has begun at both places and sources in the Congress claim that the changes will take place either after the vice-presidential elections or after the monsoons to coincide with a reshuffle in the Union cabinet.

Indications are that Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde will replace Deshmukh. There’s a growing feeling that he alone can rectify the damage done to the party during Deshmukh’s regime and restore cordiality between the government and the organisation. Shinde has done it before, having delivered the state back to the party and its coalition partner, the NCP, following the 2004 elections, despite the strong anti-incumbency factor.

He thereafter became Andhra Pradesh Governor and the Congress settled for Deshmukh as against Prabha Rau, whose name was then being propounded by senior state leaders. Ironically, Shinde was blamed for the Congress getting less seats (69) than the NCP (71). But the fact is that the three seats won by the Left were also because of Shinde. Sharad Pawar used the opportunity to grab all the creamy portfolios while the Congress was left with the chief ministership in the bargain.

Shinde is one leader from the state who has held virtually every position, from that of a party office-bearer at the Centre, the MPCC chief, a state minister, the chief minister to that of a governor and now the Power Minister. He is the party’s mascot during difficult times, but gets overlooked when the going is good. For instance, when it became certain that the Congress would lose the vice-presidential poll in 2002, he was made the candidate. But when victory appeared certain for the president and the vice-president’s post this year, the party opted for Shivraj Patil (who was also knocked out subsequently because of Pratibha Patil) and Hamid Ansari.

Now that things are deteriorating in Maharashtra, he could again be sent back. There is no denying that Shinde alone can gather the support of every section of the party, and endear himself to the opposition as well. His probable selection for the second time indicates that the central leadership rates his abilities higher than those of Home Minister Shivraj Patil, the MoS in the PMO, Prithviraj Chavan, and also Ashok Chavan, Patangrao Kadam, Rohidas Patil, Govindrao Adik, Prabha Rau and Narayan Rane.

Rane, who at one time was emerging as the choice of some central leaders, seems to have lost out since many feel that he should be with the party longer to establish his credentials. His candidacy could also draw opposition from both Deshmukh and Sharad Pawar, who may not want another Maratha stalwart to occupy the centrestage. The Congress is also conscious that the Marathas are loyal to Pawar. Therefore, it would be best to have someone like Shinde as the CM and a Maratha as the PCC chief. Rajni Ashok Patil could emerge as a candidate for the latter since she comes from Deshmukh’s region.

In any case, the Congress has effectively checkmated Pawar by getting Pratibha Patil elected as the President. This has made it difficult for Pawar to claim the country’s premiership. And he is likely to back Jayant Patil in place of RR Patil for the Deputy CM’s post once the change of leadership in Maharashtra takes place.

In Delhi, knives have been out for Dikshit for quite some time. But the leadership has not been able to make up its mind whether to replace her with Union Minister Ajay Maken, her cabinet colleague AK Walia or with former DPCC chief Subhash Chopra. Maken seems to be the front-runner but his detractors argue that his elevation may involve an election both to the New Delhi parliamentary constituency represented by him and to an assembly segment from where he would be required to be elected within six months of becoming the CM. But then, the party must weigh the long-term benefits before denying him the opportunity.

Walia is the most experienced of Delhi ministers and considered acceptable to virtually every faction of the party. If the choice is from among the MLAs, he would certainly be the front-runner. Chopra is the dark horse. Interestingly, veteran leader Sajjan Kumar appears to be lobbying to retain Dikshit. His calculations could be based on who out of the Delhi leaders may help him in getting renominated for a Lok Sabha seat the next time. In the process, Sajjan Kumar and Rambabu Sharma, the DPCC chief and a known Dikshit baiter, seem to have fallen out.

The Dikshit camp has also been baying for Sharma’s blood. The general feeling is that both will go simultaneously and Sharma may become a state minister. Some in the CM’s camp are hinting at the Rajasthan governorship for her, while her detractors feel that this may never be allowed since the central leaders will never send her to a BJP-ruled state and that too where her close friend and Congress dissident K Natwar Singh is trying to make a comeback.

But all this is in the realm of speculation and only Sonia Gandhi knows all the answers. But it is certain that the Congress needs to resuscitate itself in the two states in order to prepare itself for the electoral battles in 2008 and 2009. What happens to Deshmukh and Dikshit will also remain a matter of speculation. Between us.