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Living with dark horses

Narayan Rane may fancy himself as the future chief minister, but he must realise that he is now in a party where only unexpected candidates make it to the top, writes Sujata Anandan.

india Updated: Apr 18, 2007 03:45 IST

Some weeks ago, when I wrote in this column that Subodh Mohite had quit the Shiv Sena because his party president Uddhav Thackeray had refused to give him an audience at Matoshree, I got a fitting reply from one of Uddhav’s supporters.

“Prabha Rau, Narayan Rane and even Vilasrao Deshmukh seek audiences from Sonia Gandhi all the time. More often than not we hear she has refused to meet them or kept them waiting for days, if not weeks. Do they quit the party just for that?’’ I had to admit it was a valid point, particularly as I was told that Mohite had dropped in on Uddhav without an appointment on the day in question. “At least, he got a cup of tea at Matoshree. At 10, Janpath, he would not even have got past the first line of her security.” Touché!

As I learnt later, Mohite’s inability to get along with local party functionaries in Nagpur was the real reason behind his decision to quit the Sena. Narayan Rane had little to do with it. But, I see that Maharashtra’s Revenue Minister has burnt his fingers in trying to seize the credit for Mohite’s exit from the Sena. What is surprising, however, is that even Rane is not mourning Mohite’s defeat in Ramtek — he found Mohite too arrogant for his own good, I am told.

Congressmen may not be openly celebrating, but they are not expressing any remorse either. And why should they? They are, after all, as Rane is discovering, collectively responsible for Mohite’s defeat. A friend from the Marathi press used an interesting term for the Congress when we were discussing the bypoll results in Maharashtra last week: “speed-breaker”. The Congress always acts as a speed-breaker for itself and for others, she said. I realised how true that really is. The Congress became a speed-breaker to the BJP’s ambitions in 2004, it is now acting as a speed-breaker to its own.

Clearly, in Maharashtra, Ramtek has been the opportunity for Congressmen to act as speed-breakers vis-à-vis Rane’s own ambitions. I wonder why Rane thinks Congressmen owe him the office of the Chief Minister, even though that may be the sole reason why he joined the Congress. Otherwise, he would have gone with the NCP, which is more of a character with the Shiv Sena but has, for the moment, nothing anymore to offer anybody in terms of power either in the state or at the Centre.

Rane should have known that the Congress is the kind of party that chews up people like him quite thoroughly and then spits them out when they have no more to offer. Of course, Rane has had a lot to offer — he did win seats in the Konkan and add to the Congress tally in the Assembly giving them a comfortable lead over the NCP and securing the Congress-led Democratic Front in government for its full term. But the quid pro quo has already happened: Rane has been made the Revenue Minister and been given plenty of tickets for his supporters.

Now, if he still believes other Congressmen, equally ambitious about becoming Chief Minister in the future, will allow a parvenu in their midst to topple their applecart, he should take some time off for meditation to enlighten himself about why he is really in the Congress.

In all my years as a political journalist, I have never seen the Congress reward any Johnny-Come-Lately beyond a point. No one who has not been a Congressman to begin with has ever been made Chief Minister or Prime Minister. Sharad Pawar is the only exception to this rule but that is because he passed the acid test — he was a Congressman to start with and only made a ‘homecoming’ to the mother party. He did not bring in a culture alien to the kind of persons that the Congress is peopled with and was acceptable to all Congressmen as any of the others would have been.

Rane, clearly, is not Sharad Pawar. When the Congress(S) merged with the Congress(I), all party loyalists (including Vilasrao Deshmukh) were pushed to the background as Pawar’s men virtually took over the Congress. I notice that today Rane and his men have set up a parallel party within the Congress, with much help from Pradesh Congress chief Prabha Rau and AICC general secretary Margaret Alva, united as they all are in their dislike of the Chief Minister. But it is not quite the same thing. Pawar’s men were firebrands with brains, Rane’s are merely brawn with little firepower, if not supported by the state and the party in power.

But it is not Rane alone to blame for failing to understand what the Congress is all about. Recently, there was a report that the party had set up a three-member committee to study the government’s SEZ plans for Raigad. The Chief Minister ordered an immediate stay on the proceedings out of sheer fright. Then everybody discovered that there was no such committee at all — it was only people like Sanjay Nirupam and Ramsheth Thakur (again recent entrants unversed in Congress culture) who had decided to set up the committee with themselves on board. I have a fair idea what their motivation was, but now I am told Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary, Ahmed Patel, is hopping mad that such parvenus should take the party for a ride in this manner. Patel is not talking to them — they might now have become speed-breakers to their own ambitions.

There is something that Kripa Shankar Singh, as original a Congressman as any, once told me that I think is very true: no one who has ever expressed a desire to be either Prime Minister or Chief Minister in this country/state ever becomes one. Look at Pawar’s own example: he is perennially the man-who-would-be-Prime-Minister but when there really was an opportunity for a non-Nehru-Gandhi to become one, it was not Pawar but the completely unexpected (and unassuming) Manmohan Singh who ascended to that high office. That’s true of other parties as well — look at the Vajpayee-Advani example and you’ll know what Singh means.

Closer home, when Vilasrao Deshmukh first became CM, he said he was a great believer in destiny because he had not even been looking at that office — at best he had thought he would be the leader of the opposition. Ditto the second time round – everyone believed it would be Sushil Kumar Shinde who would be retained as Chief Minister and the day ended with the completely unexpected choice of Vilasrao Deshmukh once again.

So, Congressmen know well enough why they must never cross the thin line between desire and ambition. Rane clearly is not quite yet cast in the Congress mould so his overwhelming ambition to be Chief Minister is acting as a speed breaker to himself and others. When Ranjit Deshmukh stood as a rebel in Ramtek, there should have been efforts by Congressmen to persuade him to withdraw. After all, Ranjit has always been the “rebel loyalist’’ and each time he is offered a little more by his party to prevent him from ruining their chances in the region. This time nothing of the sort was done because they were all using Ranjit as their speed-breaker vis-a-vis Rane.

If Rau and Alva really had Rane’s best interests at heart, they would give him a crash course in Congress culture. I notice that many of Vilasrao Deshmukh’s very own speed-breakers — like Govindrao Adik, for example — have now made peace with the Chief Minister on account of this trio. Even Ranjit Deshmukh who had once famously positioned himself as a potential Chief Minister against Vilasrao (we used to refer to them as CM Deshmukh versus Wannabe Deshmukh at the height of their battle against each other) has also benefited the Chief Minister in a round-about manner. Ranjit stood as a rebel because of his dislike of Rau who was put in charge of winning the Ramtek seat. It was enough for him that he put a spoke in her wheel but now his namesake, too, can, by default, breathe easier.

Maharashtra has had the most unexpected choices of the time as Chief Ministers – A R Antulay, Babasaheb Bhosale, Shivajirao Patil-Nilangekar and Sudhakarrao Naik, among others, were all handpicked by party high commands, when they were not even looking, from among an array of ambitious hopefuls lobbying hard for themselves. Rane should then realise that he is now in a party where only the dark horses ever win.