| (From left) Congress central observers Vayalar Ravi, Pranab Mukherjee and Ghulam Nabi Azad with Vilasrao Deshmukh in Mumbai on Wednesday. (PTI)
Mumbai, Jan. 15: Vilasrao Deshmukh will go if he must. But the question not many in the Congress — whether in Delhi or Maharashtra — would answer in a hurry is who will take charge and lead a demoralised party to victory in the next Assembly elections'
The three observers deputed by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi to “assess the performance of Deshmukh” and possibly to look for a replacement arrived here just before noon. By evening, the team, scheduled to return tomorrow with the “final report”, appeared as baffled by the mission as the rank and file.
Vayalar Ravi, Pranab Mukherjee and Ghulam Nabi Azad had their hands full. Through the day they would meet each legislator, Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha MPs and all senior leaders who wanted to have their say.
Their schedule had been chalked out. 12.30 to 3.30 pm: meet the MLAs. The next one hour for the 12 Independents. After that, MPs and leaders of the Nationalist Congress Party to get the views of the coalition partner about the chief minister and the Democratic Front government’s performance. Last but not the least, the two men who precipitated the crisis — Deshmukh and his detractor-in-chief, state Congress president Govindrao Adik.
“Everyone is welcome to meet us and their views will be considered,” a tired Mukherjee said after meeting the MLAs. He added that he was not in a position to say anything else.
Azad and Ravi were not forthcoming either. Azad attempted a bit of humour, saying he was here to experience the Mumbai weather. Pressed, he said the main issue was the feedback on the government’s performance, not the “change in leadership”.
The trio met the Independents twice, a sign that the group was queering the pitch for the observers. The MLAs had earlier said their support should not be taken for granted if Deshmukh was removed. Today, however, a Congress source said the Independents had “come round to the view that they would abide by the Congress decision and support any chief minister it recommended”. The MLAs emphasised that their opinion was sought on the government’s performance. “We were not asked who we wanted as chief minister,” one of the Independents said.
Confounding the scenario was Deshmukh himself. The man so long seen as “laid-back, casual and soft” displayed a new face today.
In an attempted show of strength, he commanded his legislators and office-bearers to be present at his house at 9 am this morning. Sources confirmed that Deshmukh had personally called up party leaders, MPs and MLAs. From the turnout it was clear many had heeded his orders. One MLA considered close to him, however, clarified that the meeting should not be seen as a rebellion. “Deshmukhji just asked us to tell the observers what we really thought of the three-year tenure, nothing else.”
Deshmukh also insisted he had not been asked to resign, though reports coming in from his camp said he has started clearing important files, as most chief ministers on their way out do. Deshmukh said he was “very hopeful and positive” that the high command would repose faith on him. “We know we have done a good job,” he stressed.
His rival differed. “The party will have to work very hard to refurbish its image and win the confidence of the people, especially after the Gujarat debacle,” Adik said. “We have to portray a better image,” he added.