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Congress has no one to fill Deshmukh's shoes

Vilasrao Deshmukh's death comes at a time when the Congress is facing a leadership crisis in Maharashtra. Shailesh Gaikwad reports.

mumbai Updated: Aug 15, 2012 01:15 IST
Shailesh Gaikwad
Shailesh Gaikwad
Hindustan Times

Vilasrao Deshmukh's death comes at a time when the Congress is facing a leadership crisis in Maharashtra.

Over the past decade, at a time when it was believed that Sharad Pawar's new Nationalist Congress Party would marginalise the Congress in Maharashtra, this seasoned politician from Marathwada emerged as a key leader.

As chief minister for eight years, Deshmukh, along with a handful of Congress leaders, kept the party's strength intact and was one of the pillars of the party.

His leadership was a good mix of what was needed to remain at the top in Congress and state politics: resources, the Maratha card, oratory skills, ability to galvanise the party cadre, network of friends across parties and a group of loyal bureaucrats.

"He began as sarpanch so he was aware how the political system functioned. He helped the party rebuild its base in areas where it had lost to the NCP. As he knew the administration well, he did not let the NCP use it for its own benefit," said a senior Congress leader, requesting anonymity.

The 67-year-old, who hailed from the politically dominant Maratha community, was shrewd enough to keep the Maratha votebank happy even as the NCP projected itself as a party of Marathas.

The party has lost him at a time when it's struggling to find capable state leaders. There is no unanimity among the top brass over Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan's capability to win the 2014 Assembly elections. Ashok Chavan, who led it to victory in the 2009 Assembly polls, is under the cloud of the Adarsh scam, while Sushilkumar Shinde, who won the polls in 2004, is busy with his new responsibility as Union home minister and would be reluctant to return to state politics.

Others in the race for state leadership are either not capable or are yet to prove their ability, feel party leaders.

There will be two elections in 2014. For the parliamentary polls, with 48 seats, Maharashtra is a crucial state for the Congress. In 2009, the Congress won 17 Lok Sabha seats. With the party facing trouble in several states, it is essential that it win as many seats as possible in Maharashtra. "The Congress will have to try its best to win seats in Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh. It cannot get much success in Karnataka. With Jagan Mohan trouble in Andhra, Maharashtra is the one state where the Congress could look at winning 15 to 20 seats," said B Venkatesh Kumar, political analyst and professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

The Assembly elections in the same year will determine whether the Congress retains Maharashtra, loses to Opposition or loses its prominent position to a more aggressive NCP.

The party needs some leaders with statewide appeal, the resources to handle the election machinery and the ability to anticipate and counter the NCP's moves. The party also expects a large chunk of election funds from the industrialised state.

Little wonder then that as several legislators objected to Prithviraj Chavan's functioning, Deshmukh's name came up. "There is a leadership crisis in Congress in Maharashtra. With Deshmukh gone, this could affect the party further," said Kumar.

First Published: Aug 15, 2012 01:14 IST