The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Cong courts Pawar with thorn removal

New Delhi, Jan. 28: Congress leaders are hoping that the twin leadership changes in Maharashtra would help remove uncertainties and cement the party’s relations in the state with Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party.

“Though the Congress remains wary of NCP’s disruptive electoral presence elsewhere, in Maharashtra, the two parties will come closer to each other. The changes in the Democratic Front government and Congress organisational leadership in the state are virtually an advance announcement of a pre-poll alliance between the two parties for the next elections to the Assembly and the Lok Sabha,” Congress insiders said at the party headquarters.

Newly-appointed chief minister Sushil Kumar Shinde is known for his proximity to Pawar. Shinde did not join Pawar’s party when it was formed nearly four years ago, but the NCP chief ensured Shinde’s re-election to the Lok Sabha from Solapur by pitting a “weak” candidate against him in 1999.

Pawar has blessed the Congress move to replace Vilasrao Deshmukh with Shinde. Deshmukh was the party high command’s choice for chief ministership three years ago primarily for his rivalry with Pawar.

The Congress is also getting rid of another prominent Pawar-baiter, state Congress chief Govindrao Adik, a minister in the state Cabinet. Adik is likely to be replaced by Ranjit Deshmukh, who lost the party chief’s post four years ago in the wake of accusations of hatching a conspiracy, along with Pawar, to ensure the defeat of former bureaucrat R.D. Pradhan in the biennial Rajya Sabha polls.

Considerable significance is also being attached to the exclusion of Rohidas Patil from the Shinde ministry. Patil was part of the anti-Pawar lobby in the state Congress and one of the prominent contenders for the chief minister’s job. Patil’s exclusion came as a big shock and surprise to many Congress leaders in the state as he was not targeted for removal by members of his party.

The leadership change in Maharashtra will promote harmony and cooperation with the NCP and transform the party’s relationship with the Congress into a pre-poll alliance ready to take on the Shiv Sena-BJP combine, sources said. Senior Congress leaders and Pawar had already reached an understanding on this issue, they added.

AICC general secretary, in charge of Maharashtra, Vayalar Ravi neither confirmed nor denied this.

“We are already partners in the coalition government. We are also talking about the need for a pre-poll alliance for the next elections. But the time has not come for us to decide about it.”

The Congress is also not averse to letting the NCP contest a bypoll scheduled for February 26.

A top state leader said: “Pawar now realises that he can be more important in the state and at the national level by getting closer to the Congress, if not return to the party fold outright.”

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