MAHARASHTRA Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh’s axing of five ministers and inducting six new faces in the cabinet on March 8 may seem like a surprise move. But political circles see it as a well-calculated gameplan by the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (ncp) to quell dissent within the two parties, particularly the ncp, and to keep detractors happy by offering them a place in the state cabinet. Simultaneously, those raising the banner of revolt have been taught a lesson.
However, smooth as the operation appeared, the going may not be as easy as the CM’s camp would have everyone believe. There is one thorn in his flesh, and that is former agriculture minister Ranjit Deshmukh. While the other four ministers obediently tendered in their resignations hours after being asked to do so, Ranjit Deshmukh maintained he wouldn’t step down till he’d had a word with Sonia Gandhi. "I’ve asked for an appointment. She is busy this weekend and so I might meet her anytime next week," he says, though he agrees it’s improbable the high command was not consulted on the issue. "Perhaps she has been told I was indulging in anti-party activities. When I meet her, I hope to clear things up."
Congress and ncp leaders in Delhi confirmed that the sacks had been well-planned and coordinated. According to ncp leader and deputy chief minister Chhagan Bhujbal, the move was necessary as mlas were bemoaning a lack of representation in the cabinet. Hence the decision to axe the mlcs in the cabinet to accommodate mlas.
The reshuffle followed a night of hushed talks between Vilasrao and ncp chieftain Sharad Pawar. Though at the swearing-in at the Raj Bhavan, the CM told the press that there never was any threat to his government and the reshuffle was a routine exercise, the mlas’ induction is seen as a move to keep his coalition partner ncp happy.
The ministers who resigned without a murmur include civil supplies minister Datta Meghe, labour minister Hussain Dalwai and excise minister Vasant Chavan who were of cabinet rank. N.P. Hirani was the minister of state for culture. Explains a senior Congress leader: "There was a lot of unrest among elected mlas, chiefly among those from the main ally of the ruling democratic front, the ncp. The CM obviously had to placate them."
Among the inducted mlas are four from the ncp—Vijay Kumar Gavit, Rajesh Tope, Rajendra Shingane and Hasan Miyalal Musharaff. Two of the new entrants, Satish Chaturvedi and Sayed Ahmad, are from the Congress. The CM also elevated two ministers of state from the ncp, Anil Deshmukh and Laxman Dhoble, to cabinet rank. With this the strength of the state cabinet stands at 55, a jumbo clique that’s naturally straining the limits of official accommodation.
Now, Ranjit Deshmukh is the only one crying foul. He says he has been victimised because of his advocacy of a separate Vidarbha, a ticklish issue with rival and co-regionist Vilasrao. "This is obviously a move to sideline me," Ranjit says. "But I will continue to fight for the cause." In fact Ranjit, who says he stood unshakably by Sonia when Pawar mastered the split in the Congress, believes he deserves to be the CM of Maharashtra. But that reward hasn’t come.
Which is why he is looking to hold the reigns of a separate Vidarbha as compensation. Curiously, some Congress leaders point out that Ranjit Deshmukh is overestimating his support-base in the region. He has been snubbed time and again when Congress leaders from Vidarbha have gone easy on the demand for a separate state. The antis oppose its formation on the ground that the new state won’t be able to financially sustain itself. The pros counter that the region has enough natural assets that can be tapped with some enterprise.
Though Ranjit Deshmukh would project his being asked to quit as a bid to strangle the movement, Congress spokesperson Dr Vijaya Patil begs to differ: "It’s not true that there was a conscious attempt to isolate the Vidarbha lobby. Ranjit Deshmukh’s space has been filled by the new minister Satish Chaturvedi, who is at the forefront of the Vidarbha movement."
Adds MPCC general secretary Avinash Pande: "While we need the experience and services of the mlcs who have resigned and I’m sure they’ll continue to serve the government, I’d say the induction of the mlas is a welcome move. These are elected members of the assembly and are truly representative of the people. Some of them have been elected for the third or even the fourth time. It’s only fair that they are given cabinet postings."
The reshuffle any how, says Pande, was due for some time. But Hussain Dalwai, one of the ministers asked to resign, says, "I didn’t expect it. I’ve been doing a very good job in the Konkan area. In fact, the CM himself praised me in public. But it is his prerogative to take ministers in and ask others to go. And I accept it."
And the only man who doesn’t accept it is buying a ticket to Delhi. As much as the CM would like it otherwise, Ranjit Deshmukh is also trying for a return ticket. Now to whether Sonia Gandhi will oblige.