There are many popular jokes doing the rounds in Maharashtra these days, which aptly sum up the relationship between the Congress and the NCP, the ruling coalition that makes up the Democratic Front government in the state. Both the parties hate one another and would not miss out on any opportunity to humiliate the other. They want each other to suffer - yet not die - because of political compulsions. Despite the differences and antipathy, they are dependent on each other to keep the Shiv-Sena and BJP at bay. A senior congress leader said, “the alliance between the Congress and the NCP is like a married couple who hate one another and would prefer to do anything to get a divorce, but are forced to live together because none of them wants to give up custody of the baby to the other. The baby in this case is power”.
In the latest round of the slinging match, NCP President Sharad Pawar on September 11 in Pune reminded the Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, without taking his name, of his responsibilities, saying the CM wasn't clearing files and delaying decisions on crucial issues. "I don't know whether (his) hands are paralyzed when it comes to signing files. I hear there are files pending for three months," said Pawar. "However, I will keep quiet as we (NCP and Congress) have to go together (for elections)," the Maratha leader added, making his displeasure with Chavan's functioning clear. He was speaking at a book release in the memory of Vilasrao Deshmukh, the former Maharashtra CM who died last year.
This prompted Chavan to hit back, saying he will continue to distinguish between proposals meant for individual gains and those in the larger public interest, while taking decisions. "Issues that do not fit rules and regulations, and proposals seeking special concessions come to me for clearance. I decide such matters only after studying them properly," Chavan said at a press conference. "Studying them takes time." Countering Pawar's claim, the CM's office said that Chavan has processed 26,551 of the 27,701 files placed before him in the past 34 months. A mechanical engineer from BITS Pilani and an MSc from the University of California, Berkeley, Chavan started his career in politics when Rajiv Gandhi took over as India’s Prime Minister. He has a clean image in the government. But on the flip side he is not very popular as there is a perception that he is overcautious and tends to take too much time clearing files.
This isn't the first time that Pawar has criticized Chavan. Since Chavan's appointment as CM in 2010, political relations between the NCP and the Congress have soured, as the two are political rivals. Last year, Pawar criticized Chavan over the exodus of industries from Maharashtra. Recently, at a public meeting, Pawar criticized the CM's office in the presence of Chavan for holding up metro proposals. Ever since his appointment, the two parties have been at each others' throat. In fact, after the ignominious exit of the then Chief Minister Ashok Chavan who was tainted with the Adarsh scam, the Congress President brought in Chavan to clip the growing wings of the NCP in Maharashtra, a task which the chief minister did gleefully as he had old scores to settle with against the Maharashtra strongman.
It was Pawar who was responsible for making Chavan lose the Karad seat after an open feud with him in 1999. This was a big blow to Chavan who had won thrice from this constituency before. When Pawar split the Congress party on the issue of Sonia’s Gandhi’s foreign origin and launched his own political outfit NCP, Chavan had said Pawar had no national base and was only a regional leader. This comment was taken by Pawar as an insult and he ensured Chavan’s loss of the Karad seat, which his family had held for 36 years.
When Chavan was appointed chief minister, the Congress President told him to clip the wings of the NCP. This came as an opportunity for Chavan to pay back the NCP in its own coin. The Congress has, on many occasions, blamed Pawar - though indirectly-for the hike in food prices. The NCP has retaliated by attacking the Congress on frequent fuel hikes.
The first big blow by the Chief minister to the NCP came in September 2011. Chavan dissolved the board of directors of the apex cooperative bank controlled by Sharad Pawar’s NCP, which prompted the latter to accuse the Congress for influencing the RBI decision to this effect and in the subsequent appointment of the administrators to the bank. The dissolution of the bank's board due to irregularities hurt the NCP badly. Many of its members were on its board and the bank gave out loans to farmer co-operatives that helped strengthen the NCP’s political base. Then in 2012 Chavan said that the government would bring out a white paper on irrigation. His statement came in the backdrop of crores of rupees being spent on irrigation projects even as the state continued to reel under drought-like conditions. Chavan's white paper remark angered the NCP, pushing it into a public spat with the Congress. The NCP latched onto Chavan's remark as being a direct attack on Ajit Pawar. After all, Pawar had been the irrigation minister for close to ten years before he became the deputy chief minister.
The warring between the two parties led to Ajit tendering his resignation last year. But the move came to be seen as a ploy to hit two birds with one stone - one to put pressure on the chief minister and two to send a signal to his uncle Sharad Pawar that he was not someone who can be sidelined by the party. In a bid to reconcile the growing differences between the two parties, Ajit was again inducted as deputy CM late last year but the move failed to bring about any noticeable rapprochement between the coalition partners.
In fact, a recent statement by the Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi has put further strain on their relations. Rahul told the party workers in Pune on September 25 that if the Congress wins the Lok Sabha elections it would not need allies such as the NCP or anyone else. The NCP reacted by saying that the Congress could not do without them. "We don't have a problem in Rahul saying this to motivate his party workers. But the fact is that the Congress can't do without us - both at the centre and in the state," said NCP spokesman D P Tripathi.
Anant Gadgil, Congress spokesperson from Maharashtra, however seeks to underplay the growing strain between the two parties. “Congress and NCP will definitely go to the polls together. News about a rift between the Congress and NCP are exaggerated and should be taken with a pinch of salt.” Asked about Rahul Gandhi’ assertion in Pune that his party would not need allies such as the NCP if it wins more seats in 2014 than in 2009, Gadgil said, “I was personally present when Rahul Gandhi was addressing the workers. What he said was that the party workers should work hard to bring the Congress into power. If the Congress wins the Lok Sabha elections, it would not need allies such as the NCP or anyone else. What is wrong in this statement?” he asks.
Sanjay Nirupam, a three-time member of Parliament and a Congress spokesperson says, “There is no denying that there are differences within the two parties. But the larger issue is to keep the BJP and Shiv Sena at bay. Hence these differences will not snowball to rupture the alliance”. Echoing similar sentiments is Maharashtra President of the NCP Bhaskar Jadhav. “There are differences between the NCP and Congress on certain issues, but there is no danger to the Congress-NCP alliance”. For now, both the parties are trying to keep the alliance working but the underlying tensions could bubble up anytime to rock the coalition’s boat over the next few months.