The Loneliness of Prithviraj Chavan

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Is Maharashtra’s Chief Minister just too squeaky clean for his own good?

His colleagues do not listen to him. The opposition sneers at him. With no help from any quarter, his ‘do-good’ mission is being weighed down by forces beyond his control. Not an enviable position to be in, particularly when the person heads the state.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan is a lonely man. He has no friends at Mantralaya, the headquarters of state administration, or among his cabinet colleagues. Fellow Congressmen are standing by, watching and waiting. Collectively, they all seem keen that he fails. His squeaky clean image, the very asset that got him the top job in the state after the Adarsh-scam-tainted Ashok Chavan made an unceremonious exit, has now become his biggest liability. His image dictates his dealings and has started affecting the overall functioning of the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO), say many in the know of events.

In these times of corruption scandals, so terrified is Chavan of any speck of dirt marring his image that he has never allowed anyone close. Physically, too, he is a cleanliness freak, and he keeps his white khadi kurta-pyjama down to his white shoes free of smudges and dust.

Under earlier regimes, it was customary for political touts to ask for and get big favours of chief ministers. But Prithviraj Chavan’s tenure is different. “His antennae are always up,” says a senior functionary of the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC), “He just never relaxes. If he is praised for his work, he thinks there’s a conspiracy [at play]. When you criticise him, he thinks there is a conspiracy.”

In two recent instances of trouble in the state, Chavan’s upright image stood in the way of seeking help from more seasoned colleagues. A 95-day strike by college teachers and a month’s strike by traders—both held state-wide—saw Chavan exposed as never before. He stuck to his guns in both cases and refused to let his cabinet colleagues, many of whom had previous successes in such sticky situations, help him with negotiations. So, everyone else stood aside and watched Chavan first act adamant and then buckle under pressure to set things in order.

About 36,000 striking teachers held firm on their demand—a relaxation of promotion rules—until the Bombay High Court intervened and ordered them all back to work. The Court was clear: if they did not resume work the next day onwards, they would be charged with contempt of court. This order came as a face-saver for the Chief Minister as it helped break up the agitation. They all got back to work.

In the case of the traders’ strike, all shops in Maharashtra remained closed for over three weeks in protest against the introduction of an LBT (Local Body Tax ), which they said would add to all the paperwork. At one point, the teacher’s strike and that of the traders were being held simultaneously. Though Narayan Rane, the state’s minister for industry, port, employment and self employment, was keen on helping out, Chavan did not show any inclination to let him deal with the crisis. Others too had volunteered to do something. But faced with Chavan’s lack of enthusiasm for their support, they stood back and watched the leader’s helplessness.

The traders’ strike led to severe shortages in the market for essentials. Some items were simply unavailable. With Lok Sabha and Assembly elections due early next year, the Maharashtra government was not keen on invoking the Essential Services and Maintenance Act (ESMA) against the striking traders: they constitute an important vote bank. But when Union Minister for Agriculture Sharad Pawar tried to step in, Chavan got angry. Pawar, who heads the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) that runs the government in coalition with the Congress, has been CM himself in the past; he could have helped matters, but Chavan did not want his party higher-ups in Delhi to think that he was incapable of dealing with the problem on his own. Pawar intervened anyway. And the strike ended.

Chavan cut his teeth as a politician in Delhi and is said to lack knowledge of the local arena of Maharashtra politics. Though he has tried to learn, the wily ways of his party men have created newer problems. He may have been the toast of Parliament’s Central Hall as a junior minister in the Manmohan Singh Cabinet, but in his home state, he is being increasingly regarded by Congressmen as a liability.

While the Congress High Command is keen that Chavan keeps his job and leads the party into the electoral fray, Congress heavyweights such as Rane, Patangrao Kadam (forests and environment minister), Manikrao Thakre (MPCC president) and Balasaheb Thorat (revenue minister) have all been dragging their feet. They are all contenders for Chavan’s post themselves. “Collectively, they all want him to fail. If he is a success, he may return as Chief Minister, and that is certainly not in their interest,” says a Congress MLC who has been close to many CMs.

Even NCP ministers have been non-cooperative with Chavan. Ever since his appointment as CM on 11 November 2010, the NCP has had a bad spell. On a zealous anti-corruption drive, Chavan wasted no time in trying to set various corruption- ridden ministries right. When RTI activists started raising queries related to ministries held by NCP leaders such as irrigation, water supply and public works, and these queries made their way into the public domain, the state’s Deputy Chief Minister and NCP leader Ajit Pawar complained privately that it was all Chavan’s doing.

The equation between the CM and his deputy has been fraught with tension, with two power centres operating within the same government—often at cross purposes with each other. As Assembly polls near, the mistrust and one-upmanship between the NCP and the Congress has gotten worse. The NCP, now led in the state by an aggressive Ajit Pawar, is working hard to eclipse the Congress and emerge as the single largest party.

Then, there are the NCP’s dalliances with saffron forces such as the Shiv Sena and BJP at the civic and municipality levels. To the Congress’ discomfiture, the NCP and these parties even run a few civic bodies together.

For the 67-year old Chavan, chief ministership has become a burden, say Congress seniors. A mechanical engineer from BITS Pilani and MSc from University of California, Berkeley, he started his career in politics when Rajiv Gandhi took over as India’s Prime Minister. That was the era when technocrats found favour with Gandhi, and Chavan’s academic achievements and political pedigree got him into the PM’s inner circle. His father Dajisaheb Chavan had been a Lok Sabha member for 17 years, someone who’d served in the Union cabinets of Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi. When he died, his wife took over his political legacy and kept the Karad seat (in Maharashtra) with the family for another 16 years. She was the first woman to head the Congress unit in the state. In 1991, she stepped aside for her son.

In 1999, after he had an open feud with Sharad Pawar, Chavan lost the Karad seat (which he’d won thrice before) in that year’s General Election. In May 1999, Pawar split the Congress on the issue of Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin and set up the NCP. At the time, a peeved Chavan had said Pawar was only a regional leader. It was a slight that Pawar—a PM hopeful— never forgot. He ensured Chavan’s loss of the Karad seat, which the family had held for 36 years.

In 2002, Chavan joined the Rajya Sabha, a seat he had till he assumed charge as CM of Maharashtra eight years later. Finding a safe Assembly seat for him was difficult. No state leader wanted to vacate one for his election to the legislative body. It was only at the last minute that Sanjay Dutt, a party loyalist (an MLC not to be confused with the filmstar), made way for Chavan to take his seat.

Most of Maharashtra’s politicians have used money, muscle power and caste calculations on their way up. In contrast, Chavan has been a technocrat wonderkid who caught the High Command’s attention. His calculations have been about aircraft instrumentation and designing audio recorders for anti-submarine warfare (in his US stints). This alienates a lot of his fellow politicians.

That Chavan is a man of the globalised era is evident in other things as well. For his image management, he once sought professional help. Fed up of negative press coverage, last year he even hired a Delhi-based public relations agency to project his ‘achievements’ positively, but had to call it off after he was accused of wasting taxpayer’s money.

Ironically, Chavan found it easier negotiating with opposition MPs when he piloted the Nuclear Liability Bill in Parliament, than he now does dealing with MLAs in his home state. The popular impression that the CM is easily distracted and keeps moving from one subject to the next has not helped him either. His communication skills have been questioned too. When he took over as CM, he was accused of not being fluent in Marathi. To prove critics wrong, he has spoken only in Marathi in the state since.

“Speaking Marathi is not enough. He has to think like a Marathi manoos (son-of- the-soil). He has spent all his time in Delhi. He does not know Maharashtra well. Rane saheb is the best person for the state. The party needs an aggressive person to win elections. Madam [Sonia] ko galati pata chalega election ke baad,” says a supporter of Narayan Rane.

“If I am asked to help, I will,” Rane told reporters during the traders strike. He wasn’t asked and he did not help.

Despite being CM, Chavan seems unable to forge personal equations and work his way round the maze that state- level politics can be. “He is paranoid of getting tainted by corruption. He checks every file that comes to his desk and reads every page. He does not trust any of us. He makes everyone read each other’s files. It is paranoia. There are definitely work delays,” says a bureaucrat who has spent over two decades in government service in different capacities. Bureaucrats call him ‘a one man show’. “We think he’s biting off more than he can chew,” says an IAS officer who has worked in several departments of the government.

If Chavan can count on one thing against his detractors, it is that the Congress High Command has sent out signals that it values his opinion. So the numerous trips by CM aspirants to Delhi, which were a common feature when Vilasrao Deshmukh and Ashok Chavan headed the state, have reduced considerably.

In electoral terms, the High Command is banking on Chavan’s clean image in an election that will see corruption as a major issue. But the CM’s paranoia has created administrative inertia. All major infrastructure projects are behind schedule due to delays in procuring permission from the CMO.

Though last year’s Mantralaya fire took place in June 2012, the rebuilding work of the fire-ravaged offices is yet to be completed. It took over six months for the CM to grant the requisite permissions for the tendering process. Not even half the work is done. As a result, all the departments are scattered across the city—so ministers, department secretaries and their staff do not operate in close physical proximity. For example, the state’s Education Minister Rajendra Darda has an office at Jawahar Bhavan at Charni Road. The secretary of this department, JS Saharia, works at Mantralaya, about 6 km away from Darda’s present office. Half the staff of this department goes to an office in the St George office campus, which is 3 km away from Mantralaya. The other half sits at Mantralaya. The CM heads the Urban Development Department (UDD) and is stationed at Mantralaya. His secretary Srikant Singh occupies an office at the Cr2 Mall at Nariman Point, about a kilometre away from Mantralaya. While half of the UDD’s staff works in an office at the World Trade Centre at Cuffe Parade, the rest is at Mantralaya.

Meanwhile, the state’s new airport project at Navi Mumbai is yet to take off, though Chavan has shown keen interest in it. Another ambitious project which has been extremely delayed is the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link Road. Sources say that the project is just not moving forward. This is despite getting ‘viability gap’ funds of Rs 2,000 crore from the Central Government. The viability gap refers to the difference in cost that is borne by the Centre for projects that are not financially viable but are needed. This project is slotted under the Urban Development Department headed by Chavan.

The overcautious nature of the CM’s dealings has spelt losses for the construction industry as well, as he has been delaying clearances for new townships, new rules on the permissible floor space index (FSI), and suchlike. Since his predecessor Ashok Chavan faces a probe for his involvement in the Adarsh Housing Society scam, the CM is exercising particular restraint in this sector. This has put off builders, many of whom are moving out to other states such as Gujarat, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and even Uttarakhand up north.

And there are other areas of neglect. Despite protests by women’s organisations and activists, the State Women’s Commission remains headless. Since it is a political appointment, the CM is reportedly not keen on getting involved in the tussles of groupism that exist within the Congress over the issue. At a time when crimes against women in the state have seen an increase, this neglect comes across as apathetic.

Several development corporations and development boards remain headless too, as Chavan does not want to risk a controversy over an appointment. All said, the government will have a tough time projecting any achievements for the state’s electorate to consider. While corruption is unacceptable, many voters say, staying clean should not amount to an interruption of every aspect of active governance. Ironically, for the man who was the glue that bound various ministries to the PMO when he was a minister-in- charge in Delhi, Chavan has been unable to build a team of trusted lieutenants as a chief minister.

Achieving party unity alone may be too much to ask of him. A pity.