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The Maratha in the ring

The standoff between Cong and NCP over a RS seat that fell vacant after Mahajan died has its genesis in the acute factionalism within the Cong, writes Pankaj Vohra.

india Updated: Jun 12, 2006 00:06 IST

The much publicised stand-off between the Congress and the NCP over a Rajya Sabha seat which fell vacant following the murder of BJP leader Pramod Mahajan has its genesis in the acute factionalism within the Congress. A strong group in the party has been busy projecting Narayan Rane as an alternative Chief Minister to Vilasrao Deshmukh whose hold over the coalition is being systematically destroyed. The matter, if properly handled, could have been amicably settled. But now, it has given an edge to Sharad Pawar who has used the election not only to seek revenge for the defeat of his nominee in the legislative council polls, but also to send a clear signal that he’s the unquestioned leader of the state.

Pawar’s exalted status has been acquired because the Congress has done little to expand its base. Instead, the party has spent the first 21 months in government trying to encourage factionalism. It has feigned ignorance about Pawar’s immense political potential and it is no wonder that in the Rajya Sabha poll, the Congress will end up losing the seat, not to mention its face.

On his part, Pawar has not done anything new in projecting Rahul Bajaj, a close friend and someone whose family has enjoyed the patronage of the Nehru-Gandhis over the years. Of late, he has also the support of the BJP and the Shiv Sena as an independent candidate. While the Congress is busy accusing Pawar of violating the coalition principle in supporting a candidate along with the BJP and the Shiv Sena, the NCP is happy to consolidate its position.

Pawar seems to have completely outwitted the Congress in this unnecessary stand-off created due to the superficial knowledge of Maharashtra politics of some leaders who seem to be harbouring a death wish for the party in the state. Pawar has actually replicated the gameplan which he implemented when he had got P.C. Alexander, former aide of Indira Gandhi and ex-Maharashtra Governor, elected to the Rajya Sabha some years ago. Even then, Alexander had contested as an independent supported by the NCP, the BJP and the Shiv Sena. Similarly, Rahul Bajaj will be supported by all three parties.

Some eyebrows have, however, been raised in Congress circles over why Bajaj decided to go against the Congress, especially since even in personal matters — such as when Jawaharlal Nehru disciplined Vidarbha strongman Nasikrao Tirupude to avert a major controversy — the Congress had supported the Bajajs. But in the changed times, it appears Bajaj is closer to Pawar than he is to any other political leader.

The Congress again committed a blunder by picking up Avinash Pande, the former Youth Congress activist, whose proximity to P.V. Narasimha Rao and former IYC chief Maninderjit Singh Bitta had put him, on several occasions, in a position where he did not speak in laudatory terms about the present party dispensation. He has little support in the party and had got close to Rao because of his proximity to the former PM’s close aide, Ram Khandekar. The choice of his name shows that the Congress is reconciled to his defeat. Had it been in a position to win, both AICC general secretary Margaret Alva — accused of running a ‘Karnataka cabal’ in Maharashtra — and MPCC chief Prabha Rau would have been the nominees.

The Congress strategy in Maharashtra from the very beginning seems to have been geared to helping the NCP retain its supremacy in the state. Before the assembly polls, Congress leaders gifted away some of the sure-shot winning seats to the NCP. This arbitrary distribution led to a situation where the ruling coalition managed to retain power. But the Congress, from being the No. 1 party became No. 2. Senior leaders then looked for a scapegoat and sent Sushil Kumar Shinde, the Chief Minister, packing as the Andhra Pradesh Governor, who, although considered close to Pawar, did not have any role in ticket distribution.

The tussle with the NCP started and a strong section in the Congress wanted Prabha Rau to take over as the CM even as Pawar nominated a lesser known Maratha leader, R.R. Patil as his nominee for the deputy chief ministership. The Congress had no option but to nominate a Maratha also. Otherwise Pawar would have appropriated the entire community’s vote in the future. The choice narrowed down to Prabha Rau and Vilasrao Deshmukh, the latter finally getting the job after Congress president Sonia Gandhi indicated her preference for him.

But ever since then, every effort was made to marginalise Deshmukh. On some occasions, he was publicly humiliated and a faction started projecting Rane, who had by that time come into the Congress, as an alternative CM — knowing fully well that not only Deshmukh resented this but even Pawar could not digest the thought of having another Maratha finding his roots in the Congress. In the process, Deshmukh has acquired an image of being a non-effective CM and is known these days more for his efforts to encourage his son’s film career than for his role in rebuilding the Congress in Maharashtra.

Pawar, of course, realises that Congress is losing ground. So he is attempting to occupy that space. Both the NCP and the Congress have the same genetic code, but the difference between the two lies in a different approach towards power politics. This is borne out by the fact that ideologically it is difficult to differentiate between the two outfits and that in realpolitik terms, both need each other to survive. Even in Gujarat, where the results appeared one-sided in the end towards the BJP, the outcome would have been closer had the NCP not taken away crucial Congress votes in as many as 28 assembly segments in December 2002. The same story was repeated in the Chhattisgarh polls in 2003 where the BJP wrested power from the Congress.

So will the NCP-Congress stand-off lead to a separation? NCP general secretary D.P. Tripathi thinks that the relations will be strong as their survival is based on a mutual need. Even after Alexander’s election, ties had improved and the two contested Lok Sabha and assembly polls as allies. If it happened then, why can’t it happen now.

However, the difficulty in improving relations is not as much in programmes or policies as it is in the brittle equation between the prominent players. Behind this discord there’s also the growing perception among allies that the Congress is not doing enough to accommodate proportionate power-sharing as required by the coalition dharma. So, in order to iron out the differences and have improved relations, the Congress has to rethink its gameplan especially in Maharashtra and consolidate its organisational base — instead of giving Pawar and his NCP a free run. Between us.