The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Smiles for Pawar, frowns in BJP
Merger whiff in NCP-Cong tango

New Delhi, Oct. 16: The Maharashtra election verdict has come as a lease of life to the Nationalist Congress Party headed by Sharad Pawar.

Retaining power in the state was very important for the party which not long ago was struggling to maintain its separate identity with top leaders contemplating a return to parent party Congress.

The NCP, in alliance with the Congress, has not only retained power but may have won a bonus by way of chief ministership. It has emerged as the single-largest party in the new Assembly, winning 71 seats ' four more than the Congress ' in the 288-member House.

The strong position the NCP finds itself in owes greatly to Pawar's assessment ahead of May's Lok Sabha polls that he needed an electoral alliance with the Congress to remain relevant in Maharashtra and national politics.

That realisation prompted Pawar to virtually bury the issue of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin that caused him to break away and form the NCP in May 1999.

Even though Pawar joined hands with the Congress to form a coalition government in Maharashtra after the October 1999 Assembly elections, he continued to oppose the party nationally until earlier this year. However, the NCP chief decided to join hands with the Congress to fight the parliamentary polls.

The NCP may have gained electorally but might now move even closer to the Congress, possibly even merging with it.

With his health problems mounting, Pawar is seen as no longer possessing the qualities that earned him the tag of 'Maratha strongman'. There is hardly a second-rung leader who can hold the NCP together and retain its identity as a strong regional party. This realisation is what made many of his senior colleagues mull rejoining the Congress on the eve of Lok Sabha and Assembly elections alike.

Nor does the NCP have an undisputed number two. There is talk that Pawar would have been spared the headache of looking for a chief ministerial candidate if the Congress had won just a few more seats. The NCP leader may be worried at the prospect of intra-party rivalry over the top post.

NCP insiders, say left to himself, Pawar would be happy to allow the Congress' Sushil Kumar Shinde to continue as chief minister. The party chief might thus be compelled to move even closer to the Congress.

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