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Bajaj decision casts shadow over Congress-NCP ties

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Last updated on: June 08, 2006 21:36 IST

Nationalist Congress Party President Sharad Pawar has upset Congress leaders in New Delhi and Mumbai.

Before leaving for Washington, DC, Pawar told NCP legislators in Maharashtra to vote for Rahul Bajaj, who filed his nomination to fill the Rajya Sabha seat left vacant by Bharatiya Janata Party leader Pramod Mahajan's death last month.

Pawar, the Union agriculture minister is upset by the manner in which a couple of Congress ministers heckled him in Parliament on the issue of wheat imports. He now wants to send the Congress and its president Sonia Gandhi a message that it cannot take the NCP's support for granted in Maharashtra or in New Delhi where both parties are part of a coalition government.

The Congress leadership may seek an explanation from Pawar about why the NCP is supporting Bajaj, whose candidature is being supported by the BJP and Shiv Sena.

The Congress on Monday accepted Bajaj's almost certain election to the Rajya Sabha from Maharashtra with the assertion that it will not impact the governments at the Centre and in the state despite the NCP backing the Bajaj Auto chairman against Congress nominee Avinash Pande.

"If a solution is not found before the election there will be a contest," Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi told reporters on Monday.

He would not confirm if Pande will withdraw from the fray to avoid a rift between his party and the NCP, but insisted that the "unfortunate" differences would not adversely affect the coalition governments in Delhi and Mumbai. Singhvi affirmed that there was no no question of supporting Bajaj, whose grandfather Jamnalal Bajaj was a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi.

Party sources said a victory for Rahul Bajaj would be a loss of face for the Congress, but its leaders may be consoled by the fact the outspoken businessman, who has been critical of the government's economic policies, may not side with the BJP and Shiv Sena as he has noted time and again that he belongs to a Congress family.

With the BJP and Sena trying to exploit the rift between the Congress and NCP, Singhvi said, "We won't like the NCP to act in tandem with communal forces like the BJP and Shiv Sena as aligning with them, deliberately or inadvertently, is not desirable."

In the 288-member Maharashtra assembly, the NCP has 71 members, the BJP 54 and Sena 56. Its total of 181 votes makes Bajaj's victory a virtual certainty. The election is conducted by an open vote (as opposed to a secret ballot) and hence, the only way the Congress candidate can win is if the NCP issues a whip to vote for Pande.

At the BJP central election committee meeting, chaired in New Delhi on Monday morning by president Rajnath Singh and attended among others by former party presidents Lal Kishenchand Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, the decision to back Bajaj was taken with the view that it may widen the differences between the Congress and NCP and lead to the fall of the governments at the Centre and in Maharashtra.

Singhvi, however, did not see such a danger. He attributed the NCP going back on its promise to back the Congress candidate "unfortunately to a misunderstanding and a communication gap in the MLC (Maharashtra Legislative Council) election in which a disagreement had arisen (Congress legislators voted against NCP candidates)."

The Congress had announced much earlier its decision to contest Mahajan's seat and "we can't change it (the decision) now," Singhvi said, adding that the last Rajya Sabha seat that fell vacant with then Sena MP Sanjay Nirupam's resignation had gone to the NCP. Hence, he said, it was now the Congress's turn to contest the Rajya Sabha election and the NCP had agreed to it.

R Prema in New Delhi