As recently as January, a very senior Congress leader from New Delhi, in a private chat with a handful of journalists from Bombay, told us rather cynically, ``If we could fish out someone like Pratibha Patil and bring her in from nowhere, do you think we would ever find it difficult to get our own candidate into Rashtrapati Bhavan again?’’
I do not know if the election of Patil to the President’s office in 2007 quite qualified as a “dirty trick”, though the BJP would certainly think so. After all, that meant wooing their staunchest ally, Bal Thackeray, away from them on the emotional ground of voting in not just the first woman president but also the first Maharashtrian to that office (personally, though, I thought Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, then the vice president and the BJP’s candidate for that office, was the more suitable).
The Congress’s bag, on many occasions, can indeed be full of dirty tricks. But it is also true, as this Congressman said quite unapologetically, that they are also masters at pulling the unlikeliest of candidates out of their hat and grooming them into high office, however, unfit. Patil’s presidency is one example – most analysts agree that hers is the most forgettable of presidencies and also the most controversy-ridden, as even her retirement home contretemps testifies.
Back home, I can think of some very unsuitable chief ministers – Babasaheb Bhosale and, a decade later, Sudhakarrao Naik, both of who presided over runaway violence: Bhosale, the police mutiny of 1982 and Naik, the Bombay riots of 1992. By contrast, Sharad Pawar did not allow the aftermath of the 1993 serial blasts to escalate and got the metropolis on its feet and working almost overnight.
Then, again, when there was no alternative to Vilasrao Deshmukh post-26/11, they pulled a rabbit out of their hat, homing in on Ashok Chavan, an able administrator and a capable chief minister, who sadly blew his chance under the delusion that there was now truly no alternative to him. Yet, Prithviraj Chavan now sits in that office, and though he may not be an inveterate campaigner or know the state like the back of his hand, he is nonetheless doing a credible job of the task entrusted to him – to clean up the image of the Congress in Maharashtra. Given that the latest report of the Comptroller and Auditor General has pointed fingers at almost all stalwarts in Maharashtra, including Deshmukh, Patangrao Kadam, Narayan Rane and Chhagan Bhujbal (all ministers either in the state or at the Centre and all nursing dreams of getting the top job in the state), I think the Congress is lucky that under the fire it is now -- in both in New Delhi and Bombay -- over issues like corruption, it is lucky their incumbent chief minister in Maharashtra will never be in a situation like BS Yeddyurappa’s in Karnataka (which all other chief ministerial aspirants, without exception, might eventually find themselves in).
Though I believe that their best – and only -- bet at winning the 2014 Assembly elections is Deshmukh who knows the state inside out (and is the only one who can match up to Pawar and counter his bag of, well, dirty tricks), the Congress will have to find a way round the sword of judicial reprimands hanging over his head if they wish to continue governing the state. But given the senior Delhi Congressman’s cynical confidence, I will not be surprised if they do end up covering their flanks and retaining their hold.
However, of all the dirty tricks the Congress might have played in the past and might still be capable of even now, I disagree with the Sena tiger when he says that the dirtiest has been the nomination of Sachin Tendulkar to the Rajya Sabha. A master stroke, perhaps, for appropriating Tendulkar to themselves -- though I am not sure that Tendulkar’s prowess at cricket will translate into any modicum of popularity for the Congress per se.
I believe all those now railing against Tendulkar are simply crying sour grapes. And Thackeray, particularly, has not forgotten that the one and only time that the cricketer said something political – that Bombay and Maharashtra belongs to all – he not just bowled out Thackeray’s wicket but quite outbowled the Sena tiger.
At least I, for one, am eager for more.