The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Maratha menace stalks Cong

New Delhi, Oct. 28: After Sharad Pawar, the Congress has to contend with satraps within the party before it can name the Maharashtra chief minister.

Outgoing chief minister Sushil Kumar Shinde is the high command's favourite, but Vilasrao Deshmukh is making a determined bid to reclaim the top job. He was ousted from the post last year.

Fears that Deshmukh would try to demonstrate majority support at the scheduled meeting of the Congress legislature party tomorrow kept the leadership from revealing its choice when the agreement on government formation was announced last night.

Sources said replacing the chief minister who led the party in the polls is improbable. Besides, Shinde is the party's prominent Dalit face. 'Shinde is the party high command's favourite under the circumstances. He is also the most acceptable candidate for Nationalist Congress Party president Sharad Pawar,' a source said.

But the powerful Maratha lobby in the state Congress is making a resolute bid to reclaim chief ministership. Deshmukh is understood to be the leading Maratha contender, though there are other ambitious leaders like senior minister Patangrao Kadam.

In Mumbai, state party chief Prabha Rau said Shinde was not the only contender and cited the example of Karnataka, where the party fought elections under S.M. Krishna's leadership but chose Dharam Singh as chief minister. It was for the Congress high command and the state legislature party to decide the new leader, Rau said.

Deshmukh declared he is not averse to returning as chief minister if the MLAs want him to. Kadam has in the past made it clear he nurses ambitions to hold the top job.

General secretaries Margaret Alva, Digvijay Singh and Union minister Ghulam Nabi Azad will be observers at tomorrow's meeting to elect the legislature party leader. Before leaving for Mumbai in the afternoon, Alva met party chief Sonia Gandhi.

The Congress has managed to hold on to the chief minister's post after driving a hard bargain with the NCP, which won more seats in the elections.

Uncertainty around Shinde's continuance has now prompted the NCP leadership to hold back the election of its legislature party leader, who would automatically be the candidate for the deputy chief minister's job.

While incumbent deputy chief minister Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil's chances of retaining the position are rated high, the party might have to think again if Shinde loses his job to a Maratha leader. Mohite-Patil is also a Maratha. An alternative candidate for the NCP is senior tribal minister Madhukarrao Pichhad.

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