Another Coalition Migraine

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The Congress and NCP are at loggerheads again, but a split is unlikely

The Congress and NCP, coalition partners in the Maharashtra government, are yet again involved in a verbal duel. This time the trigger is the dissolution of the board of directors of Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank, considered to be an NCP bastion. Following irregularities in the bank’s functioning, the Reserve Bank of India had issued orders for its dissolution and the appointment of an administrator. Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan promptly obliged.

The promptness of this move was not lost on the NCP. After all, Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar is closely linked to the bank, and in current Maharashtra politics, he is considered to be a kingmaker. In the state’s cooperative sector, this bank is considered one of the biggest symbols of political control. The party that controls this bank holds the reins of the cooperative sector. Therefore, when allegations of irregularities surfaced, fingers pointed to Ajit Pawar.

Sensing that the Congress was trying to frame it through corruption charges, the NCP’s state leadership was quick to respond. Charges were traded with the Congress. Each warned the other and threatened to quit the coalition. However, both know that such a possibility is dim.    

Subsequent to the bank’s dissolution, Ajit Pawar and state home minister RR Patil listed out the irregularities in the sectors held by the Congress. As the list grew, the relationship between the two warring partners plunged to a new low. The NCP is still to recover from allegations levelled against its chief Sharad Pawar in the 2G spectrum issue that linked him to Shahid Balwa (now in custody) of DB Realty. But the NCP does not have much choice. If it decides to call off the alliance in Maharashtra, it will cost them their berths at the Centre.

Since the Pawar-Balwa connection surfaced, the NCP has been extremely restless. For it has followed a host of other issues—the environment ministry’s probe into the Lavasa hill station project where the Pawar family reportedly held shares, and rising food inflation that Pawar  as Union agriculture minister has been unable to tackle.

The NCP was a dominant partner in the last government but the 2009 Assembly polls put them many seats below the Congress, which emerged as the single largest party with 80 seats. The NCP got 60 seats. In a sense, then, the loss of seats has been a loss of clout.

The Chief Minister’s implementation of the RBI’s directives is being seen by the NCP as a case of ‘forced entry’ as he does not have connections or interests in the cooperative sector. Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar is especially irked that his aggressive posturing has come to nought. Moreover, as Chavan has known Sharad Pawar for decades, he dials him directly. Besides, Sharad Pawar is not too happy with his nephew’s style of functioning, and he quickly heeds Chavan’s requests.

Unlike his nephew, the NCP chief is not keen on exploring any other coalition options in Maharashtra. The other options are tie-ups with the Shiv Sena, BJP and MNS. If this happens, senior NCP leaders like Chhagan Bhujbal, Vijaysinh Mohite Patil and a host of others who have for some time been unhappy with Sharad Pawar will break away and rejoin the Congress.

So despite the growing unhappiness with the Congress, the NCP looks likely to continue in this marriage of convenience.