The fate of Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh continues to hang in the balance.
Even after Congress president Sonia Gandhi had, in response to a query on Sunday, maintained things were stable in the state, there were indications on Tuesday that the party leadership still faced the dilemma of whether Deshmukh should be removed in the run-up to the 2009 assembly and Lok Sabha elections or not.
The picture is likely to become clearer once the budget session of the legislative assembly concludes, most probably on April 17.
The pros and cons of a leadership change in the state have been on the radar of the Congress’ core group, which includes Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Gandhi, for some time now.
With dissidents making a beeline for Delhi, three members of the core group have been informally receiving feedback on the situation in the state. They are External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Defence Minister A.K. Antony and the Congress president’s political secretary Ahmed Patel.
Minister of State for Home Shakeel Ahmed, who is Congress spokesman, denied the existence of any panel to screen potential successors to Deshmukh.
“The Congress periodically conducts in-house exercises to review functioning of our various state units and governments. There is no need to read anything beyond what is purely an in-house exercise,” said Manish Tiwari, another party spokesman.
He refused to comment whether the exercise would lead to a possible leadership change in the state. But there is a section in the party that underlines the need for taking some corrective measures to improve its image before the polls.
On Sunday, when the Cabinet reshuffle took place, there was speculation that Deshmukh might be brought to the Centre and Power Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, a Dalit, shifted to the state to check the BSP from making inroads there.
But the party feels that Deshmukh’s removal may prompt the Maratha community to cross over to the NCP.
Deshmukh’s critics include Sena leader-turned-Congressman Narayan Rane, the Revenue Minister and an aspirant for the chief ministership, Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee chief Prabha Rau and AICC general secretary Margaret Alva.
While Deshmukh has been putting a brave face, his detractors say his is a borrowed courage.
Some hopefuls like Industry Minister Ashok Chavan are already looking sharp. A person close to Rane said he, too, was equally hopeful of Deshmukh’s removal. “He may not get the post but he would be happy to see Deshmukh relinquish the hot seat,” said the Rane associate.