By Abhay Vaidya
The jackal is cunning, smart, wily and fast. Always scheming and never one to give up easily. The elephant is huge, trusting and slow. Mighty and fearsome when provoked beyond a threshold, but otherwise genial and tolerant. Who would win in a no-holds-barred contest between the elephant and a pack of jackals?
This is by and large the story of the Congress and the NCP in Maharashtra where, increasingly, the NCP has been sniping at the grand old party and not hesitating to take the support of the BJP, Shiv Sena or the MNS to outwit the Congress in the zilla parishad and municipal elections.
The latest bout of anguish for the Congress was when the Congress lost two of its three seats in the legislative council elections from the local bodies constituencies. While the Congress lost Chandrapur and Amravati to the BJP and retained just the Latur seat, the NCP won the Konkan and Parbhani seats and also secured the Nashik seat after a tie with the Shiv Sena.
Soon after these results last month, Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan and Congress state president Manikrao Thakare blamed the NCP for this defeat. Thakare said that although the Congress had decided “to forget the past and fight the six legislative council polls with the NCP, our friends are not ready to give up their old habits. If this continues, we will have to chart our own future course of action.”
Over recent months, the Congress has become increasingly suspicious of the NCP. On 12 June at a Youth Congress event at Nanded, former Chief Minister Ashok Chavan urged the party “to recognise that the NCP, which is pretending to be an ally, is the true enemy of the Congress. If we don’t recognise this enemy well in time, Maharashtra could as well slip out of the hands of the Congress.”
On the same day, NCP’s state unit Vice-President Vasant Wani said in Pune that the NCP had begun preparations to contest all the 288 state assembly seats and 48 parliamentary seats in Maharashtra on its own in the 2014 polls.
Soon after Prithviraj Chavan became the state CM after Ashok Chavan’s exit in the Adarsh scam, Chavan’s clean image was seen as an impediment and he was blamed for holding up real estate projects and not moving builder files fast enough. During the summer, he came under attack from Sharad Pawar for the poor handling of the drought situation in parts of Maharashtra. He was criticised by Pawar again early this month for not being proactive on the industrial front after Maruti Suzuki and Mahindra and Mahindra announced plans for new projects in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu.
Last month, the NCP was defensive after Chavan called for a white paper on the poor performance of the irrigation department, controlled by the NCP over the last decade.
With such attacks and counter-attacks having become routine between the alliance partners, it is difficult to see them go hand-in-hand and trust one another during the 2014 polls.
After playing second fiddle to the Congress for a decade now, the NCP has been itching to finally seize control of the state. The party’s Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar has been openly ambitious about his goal to occupy the chief minister’s seat. This is possible only if the NCP does superlatively well on its own or snaps ties with the Congress and forms a larger alliance to secure a majority in the house of 288 seats. In the 2009 polls, the Congress had won 82 seats and the NCP 62.
Ajit Pawar is no less ambitious than his uncle Sharad Pawar who has always been opportunistic at critical junctures in his career. For example, in 1978 he aligned with the Janata Party and dislodged the Congress’s Vasantdada Patil government to become Maharashtra’s youngest chief minister. Or when he tried to block Sonia Gandhi’s elevation as prime minister only to accept ministership in the UPA government which, in effect, is headed by her.
The NCP is now preparing for one of its biggest political opportunities in the 2014 general and state assembly elections in Maharashtra. A weakened and confused Congress at the Centre would mean a bigger opportunity for regional parties. It is amidst this uncertainty that the Congress is viewing NCP’s moves with alarm.
Although the NCP claims to have the secular credentials of the Congress, it has always compromised whenever presented with a political opportunity. In March, the NCP outsmarted the Congress by secretly aligning with the BJP and the Shiv Sena to secure the top posts at 27 zilla parishads (ZPs) which had gone to the polls a month earlier. The NCP justified this by saying that there was nothing wrong in such an alliance at the “local level”. The party has had alliances with the BJP in Meghalaya and Nagaland.
In Pune, the NCP aligned with the BJP-Shiv Sena in 2007 to break Congress MP Suresh Kalmadi’s hold over the Pune Municipal Corporation. This is famously known as Ajit Pawar’s “Pune Pattern”.
As the more agile and aggressive partner of the two, the pitch for the NCP this time round will be to get into the driver’s seat in Maharashtra, with or without the Congress. This is a possibility that has not been lost out on the Congress.