New Delhi, July 21: The Congress may have to take significant decisions to compel Sharad Pawar’s NCP to continue in the government at the Centre, and it could include the removal of Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan.
Although the Congress leadership is not prepared to yield so much to Pawar, NCP sources indicated the veteran Maratha would not relent without “extracting his pound of flesh” this time.
What appears clear is that sweet talk and promises of a consultative mechanism may not resolve the crisis, which is a product of personal, political and financial considerations.
The Congress, which may have thought that the Prime Minister’s praise and Sonia Gandhi’s persuasion would pacify Pawar, is now gearing up for hard political bargains both in Delhi and Maharashtra.
Sources said neither Manmohan Singh nor Sonia would want to put up with the NCP’s exit at this juncture, but political compulsions could prevent them from bending beyond a point.
There is a strong section in the Congress that advocates fighting the Maharashtra election alone and does not want any unreasonable compromise with Pawar. A senior Congress leader said: “If the issues are of public concern, let the NCP make them public. Issues like proportionate power-sharing and lack of consultation can be addressed. We are ready for a co-ordination committee. Where then is the scope for a fight?”
What he did not say, perhaps, was that the real issues could be different. NCP leaders have been hinting at their frustration with Chavan’s working style, even arguing that both parties would sink if he continued as chief minister for long.
Asked if his removal would brighten the chances of a patch-up, an NCP leader said: “It is not a question of individuals but the government should function. We cannot remain in self-destructive mode.”
Sources claimed Chavan had systematically choked the channels of NCP’s strength, tried to expose its ministers and refused to clear files for months. There was also a suspicion that his office was leaking sensitive information to the media to discredit the NCP.
What appears to have emboldened the NCP is the perceived lack of support for Chavan in the Maharashtra Congress, with senior leaders like Vilasrao Deshmukh, Sushil Shinde and Narayan Rane apparently opposed to his continuation.
Congress leaders would, however, not like to give the impression that Pawar was in a position to dictate terms, so they expect Sonia to call his bluff.
“Dum nahin hai,” remarked a Maharashtra Congress leader, listing the NCP’s weaknesses and Pawar’s alleged inability to rebel against the system.
“Can the NCP win even five Lok Sabha seats without our support? People say he wants to go to the third front but they forget he would have little to offer if the Congress dumped him in Maharashtra,” he said.
These leaders are not worried about the fall of the Maharashtra government. They argue that the Congress would be the ultimate gainer if the NCP went with the Shiv Sena.
“He will never go with the Shiv Sena as he knows there is a definite space for Congress kind of politics in the state. If he goes, we will reclaim that entire space. It is better to separate now than at election-time,” another Congress leader said.
But he added that Chavan could not turn a blind eye to the corruption cases involving ministers.
Sources said Chavan’s removal could still be a possibility as the Congress view apparently is that he is not suited to lead the party in the election.
But the Congress would like to choose the timing of the change in Maharashtra and persuade Pawar to withdraw his threat by striking small deals at the Centre at present. These could include the post of deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, better cabinet portfolios and due respect to Pawar’s seniority.
Congress leaders are also angry with Pawar for throwing this tantrum at a time when the UPA could have savoured their candidates being nominated for President and Vice President.
Many agree that Pawar’s manipulations could be linked to Rahul Gandhi’s decision to join the government. They feel he would like to extract his pound of flesh before the Congress regains its strength and politics became Rahul-centric.