Mumbai, Jan. 16: The curtains finally came down on Vilasrao Deshmukh today as he went out of office, flashing the thumbs-up signal to his old friend Sushil Kumar Shinde who would succeed him as Maharashtra’s new chief minister.
Deshmukh announced his resignation at 1.30 pm and declared soon after that Shinde would be elected head of the Democratic Front coalition tomorrow.
With the dozen-odd Independents — most of whom were seen as Deshmukh supporters — nodding their assent, the Congress legislature party had no problem electing Shinde as its leader.
True to Congress tradition, Deshmukh had to grin and bear it. He had to propose Shinde’s name and even posed for photographs with his successor. State Congress chief Govindrao Adik, who also faces the axe from the post, seconded the proposal.
The Nationalist Congress Party’s green signal came as a bonus. The coalition partner had till now resisted Shinde’s nomination, saying it would not help to have an equation where the deputy chief minister (Chhagan Bhujbal) was an OBC and the chief minister a Dalit. The 61-year-old Shinde will be Maharashtra’s first Dalit chief minister.
After hectic parleys by the three Congress observers deputed by party chief Sonia Gandhi to end the standoff, Deshmukh finally gave in late last night. Though he did make a last, frantic attempt to rally his supporters around him, it was too late to turn the tide.
Sources in the Congress said the high command had given Deshmukh enough time to build a consensus around his leadership. But the party just could not afford to persist any longer with a chief minister who was busy trying to survive instead of preparing the ground for victory in the 2004 Assembly elections.
Deshmukh, however, maintained that “non-performance” was not the reason why he had been eased out. “The high command has not given any reason for the change,” he said.
Deshmukh said he had no regrets. “He (Shinde) is my long-time friend,” he added. “I am happy for him and I will extend my full cooperation while he is at the helm.”
He said Shinde had presented several state budgets and his experience would help the government. Maharashtra is in a financial mess, tottering under a Rs 75,000-crore debt burden. Many of its sugar mills have shut down, while a host of others have defaulted on government-backed loans and are awaiting action from banks.
The state of the cotton industry is nothing to write home about either. There has been a spate of suicides by farmers unable to repay their loans.
Shinde, who looked relaxed despite the unenviable task before him, said in the 18 months before Maharashtra goes to polls, he would try to solve the financial problems.
Finances apart, Shinde would have to deal with the NCP and the growing threat from the BJP. He would also have to tackle the Maratha lobby, which has always lobbied against a non-Maratha chief minister.
Most important, the Congress expects him to broaden the party’s base, which Deshmukh failed to do, and lead it to victory at the hustings.