The simmering NCP-Congress pot rose to a boil last week, as Sharad Pawar’s list of grievances against the ruling party at the Centre and in Maharashtra grew longer. A close look at the cracks in this long-lived and crucial, but tricky political partnership
On Wednesday, after Pranab Mukherjee was sworn in as the country’s 13th president, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, and senior Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leaders Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar and Heavy Industries Minister Praful Patel met at 7, Race Course Road, Prime Minister Singh’s house. Pawar and Patel for the past week had voiced their discontent over the coalition dharma of the Congress. Other allies like the Trinamool Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam had also flagged the issue. If this issue was left unattended, the Congress leadership would be looking at another political embarrassment. At the meeting it was decided that a UPA coordination committee would be set up. To be headed by Gandhi, it will have representatives from all the allies who have joined the UPA government and will meet once a month. It was also decided that a similar committee in Maharashtra, which has not met for the last three years, will be revived. Coming out of the meeting, Patel said that all the controversies of the last few days had “come to an end” and that the committee would ensure the “cohesive functioning of the UPA”.
All eyes are now on the next Cabinet reshuffle. Will the NCP, which has just nine MPs, gain in stature? There has been speculation that Pawar wants a more high-profile portfolio for Patel and an independent berth for his daughter Supriya Sule. She could have been accommodated in place of Agatha Sangma, who worked against the party line and supported her father P A Sangma in his bid for the president’s post, but Pawar knows that being a junior minister is no big deal — there is never much work for a junior minister. Will Sushil Kumar Shinde, who Pawar thinks is a lightweight, get the coveted home portfolio?
- Pawar was divested of the food and consumer affairs portfolio because of his opposition to the Food Security Bill
- Pawar believed that the government’s practice of banning the export of farm commodities at the first sign of a price rise was a tax on farmers. Some Congressmen blamed Pawar for the rise in food prices
- Pawar has long been at odds with Congress Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan. The feud resurfaced in November 2010 when Chavan replaced Ashok Chavan as chief minister after the Adarsh scandal
- Matters came to a boil when the Congress and Chavan opted out of the contest for the Thane civic body, leaving the field open for the Shiv Sena. NCP ministers said Chavan met Sena leaders, but had no time for them
- In May 2011, the RBI dissolved the Maharashtra State Co-operative Bank board. Most of the dismissed were Pawar loyalists
- Lavasa hill station, endorsed by Pawar, ran into trouble with the environment ministry, but Chavan cleared the Mulshi hill station project despite environmental objections
- Chavan announced a white paper on irrigation projects in the state, saying that despite Rs 70,000 crore being spent, the irrigation potential had barely increased. Pawar supported the irrigation minister, who is from the NCP, and disputed the chief minister’s figures
- Sharad Pawar may have wanted the seniormost minister’s slot in the Cabinet after Pranab Mukherjee’s recent move to Rashtrapati Bhawan — but the honour went to A K Antony
Pawar’s brinkmanship was on full display in the run-up to Wednesday’s settlement. He skipped the dinner hosted by Prime Minister Singh for Pratibha Patil, the outgoing president, last week, and even threatened to quit. The Congress spin doctors said that Pawar was angling for the seniormost minister’s slot after Mukherjee’s move to Rashtrapati Bhawan. And he was miffed when Prime Minister Singh indicated that the honour would go to Defence Minister A K Antony.
Pawar loyalists shot back that to say this was to trivialise the issue.
Pawar has actually had several run-ins with the Congress at the Centre. He had held dual charge of the agriculture and food and consumer affairs ministries since 2004, but was divested of the second ministry because of his opposition to the Food Security Bill, a brainchild of Sonia Gandhi. The public distribution system, he had said, was severely damaged and thus incapable of delivering ultra-cheap food, and the fiscal impact was too serious. Food Minister K V Thomas and Commerce and Textiles Minister Anand Sharma’s practice of banning the export of farm commodities at the first sign of a price rise, too, did not find favour with Pawar. This, he thought, was in effect a tax on farmers. He had thus opposed the ban on cotton exports imposed earlier in the year. The government woke up only when Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi made it a political issue — the Centre, he said, had robbed the state’s farmers of Rs 2,000 crore. As the state goes to the polls later this year, the government has revoked the export ban. In turn, several Congressmen blame Pawar for the unprecedented rise in food prices.
But what happened in New Delhi was at best a sideshow compared to what happened in Mumbai. Maharashtra is Pawar’s stronghold, and that is where he has the maximum problems. Pawar and Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan can’t see eye-to-eye on several matters. This goes back to 1999, when Chavan lost the Karhad parliamentary seat to Srinivas Patil of the then-newly formed NCP. The same year, the Congress and the NCP joined hands to form the government in Maharashtra. When both the key ministries of home and finance went to the NCP, Chavan protested. The bad blood resurfaced in November 2010 when Chavan replaced Ashok Chavan as the Maharashtra chief minister after his alleged involvement in the Adarsh scandal. Matters came to a boil when the Congress, led by Chavan, opted out of the contest for the Thane civic body, leaving the field open for the Shiv Sena. The NCP alleged that Chavan held long meetings with Sena leaders, though he had no time for NCP ministers. The NCP ministers were also piqued at not being taken into the chief minister’s confidence during the recent elections to 11 seats of the state legislative council.
The NCP’s gripe was that Chavan was parachuted in from Delhi and had no experience in Mumbai. On May 7, 2011, the Reserve Bank of India dissolved the 44-member board of the Maharashtra State Co-operative Bank, the anchor bank for financing agriculture in the state, following a report by the Registrar of Co-operatives. The move hurt Pawar, because most of those dismissed were his loyalists. While Ajit Pawar, Pawar’s nephew and the deputy chief minister of the state, called it a political conspiracy, Pawar merely expressed his displeasure at the way it was done. Chavan countered that this was an RBI action, based on a report by NABARD, and that there was no politics involved. But that didn’t cut much ice with the NCP. The other sore point was that while the Lavasa hill station, a project endorsed by Pawar, had run into trouble with the environment ministry, Chavan had quietly cleared the Mulshi hill station project near Pune despite several objections raised by the state environmental clearance committee. “The onus clearly lies on Chavan to clarify at whose behest he has cleared the Mulshi project,” a senior NCP minister said.
Then Chavan, without consulting the concerned departments, announced that his government would bring out a white paper on irrigation projects undertaken in the state. The trigger was the Economic Survey’s observation that though Rs 70,000 crore had been spent on various projects in the last decade, the state’s irrigation potential had increased only 0.1 per cent. It so happens that the irrigation portfolio has been held by the NCP since 1999, by Ajit Pawar till 2009 and after that by Sunil Tatkare. Pawar and the NCP immediately countered that this increase was only in “well irrigation” and did not take into account other projects; if other projects were included the increase was 12 per cent. The proposal for the white paper coincided with the exposé in a section of the media about Tatkare’s alleged involvement in irregularities and the floating of more than 140 companies by his relatives. Undeterred, Pawar and the NCP came out in the open to support Tatkare and said that he was prepared to face any inquiry. The NCP’s aggressive posture made Chavan clarify that the white paper was not aimed at investigation but at assessing the present status and outlining a roadmap for the future.
Chavan has made many enemies in the state: Congress legislators who are loyal to Ashok Chavan and Vilasrao Deshmukh (another former chief minister), real estate developers who are miffed at Chavan’s attempts to discipline them, some disgruntled bureaucrats and businessmen who feel that key projects like the Navi Mumbai airport are moving at a snail’s pace. All this has added fuel to the fire. On Monday, Chavan asked his MLAs to keep quiet and refrain from briefing the media on the fracas with Pawar and the NCP. On Tuesday, 42 MLAs wrote to Congress President Gandhi to express their grievances against Chavan. On Wednesday, Chavan dashed to Delhi, ostensibly to take part in Pranab Mukherjee’s swearing-in ceremony, though there was speculation that he had been summoned by the Congress high command to settle the row with Pawar. Political analysts predicted that there would be a reconciliation during his visit. And that is what happened. For the time being, the NCP and the Congress have decided to bury the hatchet. But the peace may be superficial.