The Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may be heading for a high-pitched battle in Maharashtra but chief minister Prithviraj Chavan has got backing of two central ministers from the state.
Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar and transport minister Nitin Gadkari have opposed a directive from the tribal affairs ministry to keep rules diluting the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in abeyance.
In March this year, the Maharashtra government had notified new forest management rules which authorised a village committee regulated by area forest official to implement all central laws in forest areas, including the watershed FRA that allows locals to harvest forest produce and claim rights over notified green areas.
Two days before the state government could force the gram sabhas to adopt the rules on Independence Day, the tribal affairs ministry directed it to keep the rules in abeyance.
The tribal affairs ministry said it violated the spirit of the FRA - the law brought in by the previous United Progressive Alliance government to undo the historic injustice to tribals and forest dwellers of curbing their rights by the British.
Within six days of the tribal affairs ministry's directive, local Congress leaders wrote to Gadkari and Javadekar seeking their intervention to force the ministry to withdraw its order.
On 19 August, Gadkari wrote a strongly-worded letter to tribal affairs minister Jual Oram saying the rules were being opposed by non-tribal groups in Maoist-affected Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra whereas the locals were in favour of the rules.
He also alleged that the ministry's directive was based on opposition by those groups and its one-sided order was not correct.
That was not enough to budge Oram, a tribal himself, and withdraw his ministry's directive.
On August 29, on directions of Javadekar the environment ministry issued a formal order stating that the rules were framed under the Indian Forest Act of 1927 giving rights to foresters to manage jungles by keeping locals out and was not in violation of the Forest Rights Act.
It also asked the tribal affairs ministry to withdraw its direction saying the Maharashtra government rules were notified with a view to institutionalise an effective and efficient management regime for conservation and long term sustainability of forests.
The tribal affairs ministry has so far resisted the pressure from the Congress-ruled state government and two central ministers in the BJP government.