Ever since Congress and Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) took over the reins of the state in 1999 as the Democratic Front combine, both had adhered to the code of conduct of an alliance. Even though state-level leaders indulged in a game of one-upmanship, seniors such as Sonia Gandhi and Pawar himself stayed away from it.
The skirmishes between local leaders were rarely taken cognisance of in Delhi, where NCP is an alliance partner of the UPA government at the centre. Known for his cool and calculated usage of words, Pawar rarely expressed his opinions on the working style of the state government headed by Congress CMs, except once, when he said the state coalition should work the way Dr Singh was leading the UPA, as he respects allies and their opinions.
But the same Pawar, of late, seems to have changed tack. In January he said if Congress lost in UP (which it did, badly) the onus would be on Rahul Gandhi. Indirectly, he raised a question mark over the leadership qualities of the young scion of the Gandhi family. His utterances, as expected, created flutter in Congress circles.
Though Pawar’s barb was directed at Rahul, neither he nor Congress president Sonia Gandhi reacted to the statement directly. Then followed the elections to local and civic bodies in Maharashtra, where the pitch was further queered when NCP decided to take on Congress by sharpening its attacks. Not only did the parties fight alone at most places, the hits were rather incisive, leaving scars in people’s minds.
Since the Samajwadi Party and its young CM Akhilesh Yadav taking over the reins in UP, there appears to be a provisional understanding between SP and NCP. This became apparent when Pawar recently said the next candidate for the President’s post should be apolitical and chosen with consensus. Mulayam Singh Yadav’s party lost no time in echoing Pawar’s views, raising a number of eyebrows in political circles.
Recently, while touring drought-hit areas from Satara and Sangli, Pawar took potshots at CM Prithviraj Chavan, chiding him on having lunch with farm labourers at a village. This also baffled many, as Pawar had earlier advised his party men to cooperate with Chavan soon after the latter taking over as CM in 2010.
In this backdrop, Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Mumbai and the water scarcity-hit areas is being looked upon in a different perspective. The way the ‘heir apparent’ addressed his party workers and interacted with senior leaders shows that he has started taking personal interest in party affairs in Maharashtra.
This was visible at Tilak Bhavan, the party’s state headquarters in Central Mumbai, when Rahul asked over 550 block unit presidents about efforts that were needed to strengthen the party, what role they could play at local levels and what powers they do enjoy. Upon receiving some pessimistic replies, he assured to make them more ‘powerful’. “We need to promote sincere people and weed out traitors,” said the AICC general secretary.
Besides this, Rahul held a separate meeting with party office bearers and did a review of ongoing programmes. One of the important issues that he raised was whether there was any system in the party organisation where good workers were honoured and bad elements sidelined. This rarely happens in Congress, as the party faces no threat to its existence in Maharashtra, thanks to a singularly weak Opposition.
Another thing that should not go unnoticed here is that he did not object to or stop anyone, including state Congress unit chief Manikrao Thakre, when they spoke against NCP. Almost all of them were demanding parting ways with Pawar’s party and fighting the next elections alone. Rahul’s sudden decision to visit drought-hit parts of Satara, which wasn’t a part of his original itinerary, is also being seen as meaningful. He is the first Congress leader from Delhi to visit the areas.
With NCP’s efforts to strengthen its local units and gearing up the party local brass for future elections, Congress too is pulling up its socks. The days to come should be interesting.
— The writer is Political Editor, MiD DAY