The United Progressive Alliance’s second term in office has been troubled, above all, by the consequences of indulgence of its allies — including in its first term. The accusations of corruption around 2G licensing, which have put it permanently on the back foot, came from an excessively distant approach to what one member of the alliance — in this case the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham — was doing in areas that it had come to think of as its own preserve. It is clear that the political price for the perceptions surrounding the DMK nominee’s actions in the telecom ministry will be paid by its political partners, especially the Congress. Then there’s the Trinamool, which the Congress appeased before the West Bengal assembly elections through allowing it the pick of the most winnable seats, even in Congress strongholds; as a result, the UPA has no leverage over the Trinamool anymore.
These experiences should inform how the Congress’ leadership rises to the challenge posed by the head of the Nationalist Congress Party, Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar. Reportedly, Mr Pawar feels he and his party have been denied due respect by the Congress. Accompanying the stand-off is the usual chorus on the importance of “coalition management”. This parroting of conventional wisdom, however, misses the point. The problems between the Congress and the NCP aren’t about Delhi, but about Maharashtra. There, Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan (from the Congress) — sent to Mumbai from the prime minister’s office amid expectations that he would clean up Maharashtra politics, notoriously rife with corrupt practices — has run into severe trouble with the NCP.
The signifiers of Mr Chavan’s “non-performance”, as the NCP put it, are intriguing. He delayed the implementation of land deals and Mumbai redevelopment projects that were accused of being developer-driven land-grabs, while new development control rules were framed and announced. Mr Pawar’s chosen successor, his nephew Ajit Pawar, is Maharashtra’s deputy CM, and formerly ran the irrigation ministry, which has been with the NCP since 1999; Mr Chavan has asked for a white paper investigating the inadequate returns from the state’s hefty investment in irrigation. Reportedly, cost and time overruns have been so severe that Central funds have been held back. Another flashpoint is power; Ajit Pawar also holds the energy portfolio for the NCP, but the chief minister has declared making the state “loadshedding-free” this year his priority. Maharashtra’s state-owned power generation capacity has stagnated, leading to a sustained shortfall of over 4,000 Mw for many years now. The power minister expected gaps in state capacity to be made up by private facilities, such as those being developed by the Adani group, for example. Yet this has run into trouble; following problems with its coal sourcing, the supplier wants the state to renegotiate tariffs. The parties have clashed, too, over the Pune metro, which Sharad Pawar wants underground — an idea which the CM then attacked in public for being too expensive. While Mr Pawar may well demand concessions, the Congress should not forget the lessons of the past. Recognising his stature as one of India’s seniormost politicians is easy. Placating him through aborting the clean-up mission of the Maharashtra CM would be a disaster.