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Chavan shaky in CM chair

New Delhi, June 18: Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan could be replaced within the next few days as the Congress leadership grapples with the crisis of confidence created by the general election rout in a state where the party has traditionally been strong.

The leadership had initially decided against changing the chief minister because very little time remains for the Assembly election, scheduled later this year. Experience has shown that a last-minute shuffle rarely helps turn the tide, sources said. But the feedback from state leaders has alarmed Sonia Gandhi enough to explore options.

Sources said that former home minister Sushil Shinde is being viewed as the frontrunner. Shinde is a seasoned political warrior who has been in a similar situation in the past — he was sent to Maharashtra as chief minister in 2003, ahead of the 2004 Assembly polls, and succeeded in pulling it off.

Shinde also has excellent relations with NCP chief Sharad Pawar, who is said to be unhappy with Chavan’s style of functioning. Pawar is expected to meet Sonia soon to discuss the election strategy.

Sources in the NCP, with which the Congress runs a coalition in Maharashtra, said they would not oppose a leadership change and argued Chavan should have been removed six months ago. Congress legislators too privately expressed anguish at the delay, claiming a victory under Chavan’s leadership was impossible.

The Congress-NCP alliance has been in power in Maharashtra for 15 years but in the general election, the Congress won only two of the 48 seats while the NCP managed four. The Congress-NCP vote share stood at 34 per cent and that of the BJP-Shiv Sena at 48 per cent, pointing to a clean sweep in the Assembly poll.

Legislators from the state, who have for long been campaigning for change of chief minister, had warned of such a debacle much earlier. They also want a new state unit chief and a new general secretary in charge of the state, in place of Manikrao Thakre and Mohan Prakash. While the MLAs want former chief minister Ashok Chavan to head the state unit, the high command too is keen on a Dalit-Maratha combination. While Shinde is a Dalit, Ashok Chavan is a Maratha.

A few other names, including that of Narayan Rane, are being considered for the chief minister’s post.