R R Patil, home minister and deputy chief minister of Maharashtra, has a reputation as one of the most honest and decent men in contemporary politics. Even Anna Hazare and Medha Patkar, both notoriously acid-tongued on the subject of politicians, have spoken approvingly of Patil. Why then are some Congressmen so infuriated with him?
The answer may lie in a meeting that took place on Thursday, the second of February. Manohar Joshi, former chief minister of Maharashtra and former Speaker of the Lok Sabha, went to meet the Nationalist Congress Party leader.
Confronted by curious reporters, Joshi blandly responded that he had just gone to invite Patil to preside over the release of a new book. He did not elaborate what else they discussed at this conference. However, everyone in Maharashtra realised that the meeting was taking place under the shadow of by-elections to the Naigaum and Shrivardhan assembly seats.
The by-elections had become necessary since the sitting MLAs, Kalidas Kolambkar and Shyam Sawant, had quit the Shiv Sena for the Congress. Both are, it goes without saying, followers of Narayan Rane, the Shiv Sena chief minister turned Congress revenue minister. And it was that Rane connection which made them vulnerable.
Rane has become the focus of dislike for all the leading parties in Maharashtra. The Shiv Sena hates him because he has taken a chunk of votes with him. The Nationalist Congress Party dislikes him because he has strengthened the Congress. And sections of Congressmen distrust him for his ill-disguised ambition to regain the chief ministership of Maharashtra (in Congress colours this time). The Naigaum and Shrivardhan by-elections thus became an opportunity for all of Rane's many foes to flex their muscles.
Will it surprise you to learn that a certain Manoj Sansare was released on parole? There are two interesting things about this.
First, he was arrested under the Maharashtra Prevention of Dangerous Activities (MPDA) Act, a draconian law that has been used to arrest Dawood Ibrahim's men for instance. Getting parole is not all that easy. Which leads to the second interesting point: Sansare was the Bharatiya Republican Party candidate for Naigaum, with the Korba-Mitha Nagar area being considered his fortress. The point was not lost on local Congressmen who fumed aloud about the leniency of the 'Home Department' -- which, of course, has been allotted to their Nationalist Congress Party ally.
As it happened, Kalidas Kolambkar held Naigaum for the Congress. But Shyam Sawant was beaten by the Shiv Sena's Tukaram Surve. Angry Congressmen fume that he was beaten thanks to the machinations of Sunil Tatkare, the food and civil supplies minister of Maharashtra. Tatkare, who considers Raigad his area of influence, is no friend to Rane, and does not want anyone from the Rane camp breathing down his neck.
The Nationalist Congress Party, as readers may recall, actually emerged as the single largest party in Maharashtra after the 2004 assembly election. It conceded the office of chief minister to its Congress 'ally' only after throwing a fit in public. However, thanks to Narayan Rane's defection, the Congress now has 73 MLAs in the Maharashtra Assembly, while the Nationalist Congress Party is still stuck at 71.
The Congress high command thought it was cutting both Sharad Pawar and Bal Thackeray to size when it brought Narayan Rane into its camp. The Nationalist Congress Party boss is now reminding them that two can play the game. It is an absolute certainty that the Vilasrao Deshmukh ministry shall collapse if Sharad Pawar withdraws support.
There is no immediate danger to the Vilasrao Deshmukh regime in Maharashtra. If nothing else, breaking the alliance means the Nationalist Congress Party must surrender its seats in the Union Cabinet. But it is certain that both the Shiv Sena and the BJP would have no ideological qualms about welcoming Pawar. But would any Congressmen follow him, as Shiv Sainiks followed Rane?
Narayan Rane is an ambitious man. He parted ways with the Shiv Sena because he could not stomach Uddhav Thackeray being promoted above him. How long will he put up with Vilasrao Deshmukh being chief minister? His ambition depends on proving his utility to Sonia Gandhi, chiefly by bringing the Konkan region back into the Congress orbit. But in doing so he is stepping on the toes of the Nationalist Congress Party.
There will be, I venture to predict, no immediate repercussions. But the fun will start when the elections are over in Bengal and Tamil Nadu, when the Congress high command turns its attention to Maharashtra. Rane may have brought some friends to the Congress, but in welcoming him the party also inherited Narayan Rane's enemies.