A sudden change of chief minister when assembly elections are on the horizon indicates that the party high command is exceptionally worried. And there is no doubt that the Congress is a worried party. For Mr Sushil Kumar Shinde, who has replaced Mr Vilasrao Deshmukh as Maharashtra’s chief minister, the task ahead will require all the organizational and financial management skills he has acquired in his 30 years of political experience, partly as state finance minister. Among the 22 chief ministers Maharashtra has seen, he is the first Dalit. But caste equations were not primary in the party’s calculations. That is obvious from the fact that Mr Chhagan Bhujbal, the other backward classes deputy chief minister from the Nationalist Congress Party, has been left undisturbed, in spite of the powerful presence of the Maratha lobby in the caste politics of the state. Evidently, one of the priorities of the Congress central leadership was to rock the boat as little as possible. Mr Deshmukh has slipped badly on other fronts, those considered more dangerous to the party’s fortunes.
The party may be hoping that Mr Shinde’s experience of handling state finances will help lighten Maharashtra’s Rs 75,000 crore debt burden. Politically, the party is badly demoralized. It has been unable to check the advances made by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena, a triumphal progress recently crowned by the appearance of the BJP’s new hero, Mr Narendra Modi, in a political rally in Mumbai. Additionally, Mr Deshmukh has allowed the Congress’s chief coalition partner in the Democratic Front, the NCP, more growing space than the high command considers wise, while inviting trouble from his own party. The loudest critical voice against him was that of the state party chief, Mr Govindrao Adik. Mr Shinde’s tactical skills are needed to calm potential division and he has set about doing this through the catholic yet measured way he has chosen his cabinet. It was the NCP leader, Mr Sharad Pawar, who brought him into politics, and the old-times’ bond may be useful. Mr Shinde’s declaration that it is necessary to work together to defeat communal forces is perhaps the best formula at the moment. It also quite truthfully focusses on the Congress’s fears after the BJP’s tremendous success in neighbouring Gujarat purely on the Hindutva card. There is always the possibility that a sudden change of this sort may cause disaffection among important leaders elsewhere at a crucial time. By treading cautiously — and inducting Mr Shinde has been gently handled — the Congress may have escaped this danger.