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Party pale after Pawar illness

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ANAND SOONDAS Mumbai Published 04.04.04, 12:00 AM

Mumbai, April 4: Sharad Pawar’s surgery has come as bad news to the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party combine.

Equally, the news that the NCP chief has been virtually ruled out of campaigning for the most crucial phase before the first and second round of polls on April 20 and 26 has enthused the rival BJP-Shiv Sena alliance

Pawar, who was suffering from a malignant ulcer in his mouth, the result of chewing gutka, underwent surgery at Breach Candy hospital on Saturday. Although the operation, which the NCP insists is a “minor one’’, was successful, doctors have ruled out the Maratha leader from electioneering till at least April 15.

NCP leaders refused to term this a major setback, but beneath the public gung-ho, the party cadre is aware that the absence of their star campaigner could affect them badly.

Party spokesman and Pawar-confidant Praful Patel said “a little infection’’ in the NCP chief’s left jaw necessitated minor surgery and there was nothing to worry as he is in good health. “He has been hospitalised for an abscess and an infection near the area where a surgery was performed earlier to remove a pre-cancerous growth,’’ Patel said. “If the surgery hadn’t been done it could have developed into cancer. But now there is no such threat and we are just making sure the infection does not lead to anything serious. He will be back on stage soon.’’

Even so, the tension in the Congress-NCP camp is evident. To lose Pawar at a time when both parties are struggling to shrug off allegations of corruption, financial mismanagement and non-governance is a blow to the combine and it is aware of the uphill task it faces. Pawar’s loss is a headache for the Congress as NCP votes don’t necessarily translate into votes for them.

The Maratha leader has been a star campaigner for the Congress, of which he was a member till 1999, and the NCP thereafter. He is a bigger crowd-puller than the Sena’s Bal Thackeray in large areas of Maharashtra, which accounts for 48 Lok Sabha seats. Few in the state can match his charisma or power.

Sources said Pawar did not want the operation and underwent surgery only after his family members and doctors insisted.

Although Patel has said the NCP chief will be out of campaigning for “just 10 days’’, hospital sources said he may be on the sidelines for more than two weeks.

Pawar is suffering from submucous fibrosis in which the inner lining of the mouth is damaged, causing fibrous tissue to form. In advanced cases, the patient can no longer open his mouth. Adding to the NCP chief’s woes, doctors say the condition can be controlled but may recur. Pawar underwent a similar operation two years ago.

The NCP chief has filed his nomination for the Baramati seat and should win easily. He insists there should be no problems even in the other constituencies the NCP is contesting.

Pawar has handed over the campaign reins to Patel and home minister R.R. Patil and urged party workers not to let his absence affect their morale. He said he was confident that the NCP would do “better still’’.

But the party cadre is not convinced. They feel Pawar had more responsibility than previously since they cannot rely too heavily on the other star campaigner Chhagan Bhujbal, who has been hit hard by allegations of involvement in the multi-crore stamp paper scam.

“The problem is that with Bhujbal not being projected as a star campaigner for this election, it left only Pawar saheb,’’ an NCP leader said. “And then, the NCP has always been a one-man show centring around Sharad Pawar. Without him around for campaigning, it will be that much more difficult to pull in the crowds,’’ he added. Getting votes may prove just as hard.

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