The Congress leadership continued to struggle to find a replacement for Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, who offered to resign for the second time on Tuesday night.
“I have again offered my resignation. It is for Sonia Gandhi to decide,” Deshmukh said after meeting the party president.
The Congress’s Maharashtra in-charge and Union Defence Minister A.K. Antony virtually admitted the Congress dilemma in deciding on Deshmukh’s successor, saying: “No final decision has been taken yet; discussions are continuing.”
Antony said Deshmukh “apologised to the party president” for taking film director Ram Gopal Varma to the ravaged Taj hotel and once again took moral responsibility for the lapses that led to the terror attacks. The two-hour meeting was also attended by External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and senior party leader Ahmed Patel.
Deshmukh had earlier offered to resign during the Congress Working Committee meeting on Saturday night.
The Congress is faced with the complex task of selecting a new chief minister who would be acceptable to its alliance partner, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), and has the stature to improve the party’s credibility before elections a few months later. “Since deputy chief minister R.R. Patil of the NCP has already resigned, the Congress would have to give a matching response by replacing Deshmukh. There is no other way,” a party leader said.
Party sources don’t rule out the emergence of a darkhorse whose name is not in circulation till now. Ashok Chavan, Maharashtra’s Industries Minister and son of former Union home minister S.B. Chavan, is also being considered a strong contender. The thinking in the party that Deshmukh should be replaced by a Maratha leader could go in Chavan’s favour, unless there is a last-minute change.
Union Power Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, the party’s Dalit face, was being considered a frontrunner, given his seniority and the experience of having been chief minister earlier. But the urgency shown by the NCP leadership in accepting his name may have brought down his chances within his own party a little. However, he continues to be in the race, Congress sources said.
The Congress is now waiting for the NCP to announce a new deputy chief minister. Infact, both parties are waiting for the other to come out with a name first.