In the American TV series Resurrection, Jacob, an eight-year-old boy, wakes up from the dead in the Chinese hinterland with no idea how he got there. He eventually solves the mystery of his death. A bit of that kind of drama played out in Maharashtra politics last week—in Vidarbha, synonymous now with farmer suicides, an appropriately rural setting to match that of the TV series. The resurrection in this case was of former chief minister Ashok Chavan—untouchable to Congress crown prince Rahul Gandhi only a year ago for fear of the taint of the Adarsh Cooperative Housing Society rubbing off. During the 2014 election campaign, Rahul was visibly embarrassed to share the stage with Chavan. But during Rahul’s Vidarbha yatra, the most visible face from the party’s state unit was none other than Chavan. Party leaders admit grudgingly that he has “not just managed to rid himself of the Adarsh taint, but even risen in the eyes of the Congress vice-president”.
When Chavan stepped down from the CM’s post in 2010, after the Adarsh scam broke, his political capital had shrunk to zero. He admitted that no one in the party even wanted to speak to him. But clearly he’s no longer that pariah. Last week in Amravati, he was not just in charge of Rahul’s kisan padayatra, he was marching in step with the Nehru-Gandhi scion. As he faced the TV cameras with Rahul, it became clear, as a senior leader told Outlook, “that Chavan is Rahul’s trusted man in Maharashtra and that he has managed to convince Rahulji that the Adarsh taint is yet to be proven and it was an insider engineering job. Who will question the boss, if the leader is convinced?”
A year back, Rahul was not too happy to share stage with him. Today, Ashok Chavan marches in step with him.
So it’s hardly surprising that those who opposed Chavan until recently are now rallying behind him. Now that Rahul has made him the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC) chief, they seek key positions for themselves. Comparisons are being made to what has happened in Delhi. “Look, in Delhi, Rahul made Ajay Maken head of the party. No one questioned it despite Maken’s performance because no one wants to annoy Rahul right now. In a few months, Rahul will be party president, and no one wants to be in his bad books,” a leader says. So Chavan’s coming out of the woods is typical of the prevalent mood in the Congress. “Whoever is chosen as a leader by the high command gets established as the leader. The cadre has no role to play in that decision,” says a Congress leader from Maharashtra. “In any case, where’s the cadre in the Congress, especially in Maharashtra?” In such a scenario, Chavan’s return wasn’t really a difficult stunt to pull off. Sources say what has paid off for Chavan is “his brilliant organisational skills”.
After all, he did manage to rope in former minister Mukul Wasnik and former MPCC chief Manikrao Thakre for the Vidharbha rally despite all the infighting. Not just that, he even managed to gather enough audience—and media attention—for Rahul in a region where the party has no MPs and only eight MLAs out of a possible 62.
Old-timers believe Chavan’s resurgence has to do with his own political acumen. For one, Chavan and his wife both nursed his constituency in Nanded and never lost touch with the electorate. When the Congress was struggling to find a leader in the state—with Narayan Rane losing the polls, Sushilkumar Shinde in retirement mode and Prithviraj Chavan discredited—Ashok Chavan emerged as an organisational genius and an able fund-raiser. His influence with corporates is considered rather powerful. No wonder even bitter opponents like Nitesh Rane are singing paeans to Chavan. Others like Thakre believe that Chavan will inject new life into Maharashtra Congress.
That said, Chavan’s final test is yet to come. Says a senior leader, “If Chavan can win us an election and if he can get all the small local party leaders to unite on one platform, no one will be able to touch him.” The timing of the bounce-back, then, is bang on. With the Congress desperate to find a foothold in Maharashtra, Chavan’s long list of scam taints—the Adarsh, Lavasa, paid news and irrigation scams—have been forgotten. What remains to be seen is if the Congress’s season of individual resurrections is mirrored in a revival of the moribund party in Maharashtra.
By Prarthna Gahilote in Mumbai