The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Pawar obstacle to Deshmukh ouster

New Delhi, Jan. 10: Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar could hold the key to Vilasrao Deshmukh’s continuance as chief minister and head of the ruling Democratic Front coalition in Maharashtra.

The Pawar factor stands as a hurdle to Deshmukh’s replacement in the face of the Congress assessment that the party could fare badly in next year’s Assembly and Lok Sabha elections with him at the helm, party sources said. “We have recognised that there is a problem in the state,” said a senior leader.

State Congress leaders and legislators accuse Deshmukh of helping coalition partner NCP. The chief minister had promised to take corrective steps before the confidence vote in the Assembly five months ago. But the high command has all but concluded that Deshmukh is doing little to end this alienation.

With the twin elections less than two years away, Congress president Sonia Gandhi is contemplating bringing in a new leader to head the coalition. Lok Sabha deputy leader of Opposition Shivraj Patil and fellow parliamentarian Sushil Kumar Shinde are being considered, but the high command prefers Patil, who is seen to be free of the Pawar influence.

Shinde, on the other hand, is too close to the Maratha leader, who is resisting the Congress move to instal Patil in place of Deshmukh, the sources said.

Pawar, the sources add, has set some conditions for agreeing to change the coalition leadership. Though Pawar called for a Congress-NCP alliance before the Assembly and general elections, he has not articulated his proposal that the Congress should agree to an NCP chief minister after the next Assembly polls.

The NCP leader’s pressure tactic has put the Congress in a bind. Maharashtra Congress leaders are against giving any such assurance to Pawar as they believe his party is trying to retain its eroding political base at the Congress’ cost. In any case, it is too early to talk about the elections, they said.

“Somehow, we have to find a way out of this dilemma. We will have to get the NCP round to changing the Democratic Front leadership,” the sources said.

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