The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Double surprise in Maratha conquest

Mumbai/New Delhi, Oct. 29: After three days of discussion, Marathas emerged on top of Maharashtra politics with the Congress springing a surprise by selecting Vilasrao Deshmukh to be the next chief minister.

Earlier, its partner, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), produced the first stunner of the day, choosing R.R. Patil as its candidate for the post of deputy chief minister. Patil, like Deshmukh, was a come-from-behind winner since V.S. Mohite Patil was said to be the frontrunner, having held the seat in the previous coalition.

Deshmukh was very much the comeback kid as he upset the favourite and chief minister in the previous government, Sushil Kumar Shinde, who had replaced him in the first place.

Shinde, 62, was expected to get the top job ' an impression the Congress had also created ' because he was seen to have led the combine to victory in the election, an argument the party supposedly used during protracted negotiations with Sharad Pawar's NCP to claim the chief minister's post.

A Dalit, Shinde was the choice of the high command and was also said to have the confidence of Pawar. Deshmukh, 59, pulled through on the strength of the powerful Maratha lobby. It was claimed that he had the 'overwhelming' backing of 40 out of the 69 party MLAs. Twenty-seven of the MLAs belong to the Maratha caste.

It will be a sweet second coming for Deshmukh. Shinde replaced him 22 months ago when there was intense factionalism in the party. Some observers were interpreting today's outcome as a victory of local political forces over the high command.

'The MLAs selected his name and then we were in touch with Delhi. The high command approved the choice,' a Congress spokesperson said. 'We have proved democracy prevails in our party and the Congress legislature party elects its leader.'

Aware of a growing anti-Shinde sentiment and fearing a revolt if MLAs' views were ignored, the high command swallowed its preference.

While making a virtue of its respect for majority opinion, the high command also made a strategic decision in going along with the choice of Deshmukh to counter Pawar. The two are known rivals.

Similar popular support saw Patil emerge as leader of the NCP in the Assembly. After a 'secret ballot', his name was proposed unanimously as the other contestants dropped out.

It is possible that the NCP picked Patil to forestall a Maratha leader's selection by the Congress in the belief that two Marathas cannot hold the positions of both chief minister and the deputy. The presumption proved to be wrong.

Deshmukh tonight said the alliance is likely to stake claim tomorrow, adds PTI.

Notwithstanding the show of democracy, the Congress legislature party, which met at Vidhan Bhavan at noon, took all day to choose the leader ' the announcement being made late in the evening.

Until the central leaders, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ashok Gehlot and Margaret Alva, came out of the meeting to say Deshmukh was the chosen one, Shinde supporters were claiming their leader had won.

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