He has won the crown. Now come the thorns, and they are aplenty. Returning to Maharashtra after a stint at the Congress headquarters in Delhi, Sushil Kumar Shinde is its first Dalit chief minister. But his party is crammed with would-be CMs and a formidable higher-caste lobby unhappy with his entry. He will also have to preside over a state which was once the richest in the country but is now on the brink of bankruptcy. With 18 months to go before the state goes to polls, Shinde has little time to take on a revitalised Shiv Sena-BJP saffron alliance.
Shinde—the Congress vice-presidential candidate last year—was in the running for the CM's seat half a dozen times but never made it. He finally got the chance after old pal Vilasrao Deshmukh was axed on January 16, having been put on notice more than six months ago. The next chair to go could well be that of deputy CM Chhagan Bhujbal from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which runs the state in coalition with the Congress. Caste equations demand at least one Maratha at the top and Bhujbal is an obc, albeit under the aegis of another Maratha, NCP chief Sharad Pawar.
According to Congress mlas, in spite of Shinde's elevation to the top job, the caste factor will work against him. As a Dalit CM who hails from the minuscule Dhor community, he is sure to face resistance from the powerful Maratha lobby which dominates Maharashtra politics. In the Congress and the NCP, Marathas hold all the key posts. With just three exceptions, all the state's CMs have been Marathas. Says a CWC member, "The Maratha lobby is not going to remain silent. Shinde will have to face a lot of trouble from that quarter. But he is a very affable man and we expect him to iron out differences." Some Congressmen say that the Dalit CM has been appointed deliberately to boost its image among the minorities but the Maratha factor could be a major thorn in Shinde's side. In fact, three distinct lobbies of legislators had told the aicc team of observers sent to assess their views that if the CM had to be replaced, it must be with a Maratha.
After more than a decade in Delhi, Shinde also returns to a deeply divided party. There are many satraps who fancy themselves better suited to his post. "Many elephants butted their heads at the gate but finally someone else came in," joked a Congress minister when Shinde's name started circulating. Among those disappointed are Deshmukh's cabinet ministers Rohidas Patil and Patangrao Kadam as well as his arch-rival Ranjeet Deshmukh. "The party and the state are part of the same railway track. We must all be united," Shinde said after his name was announced. The new CM could smell dissidence even before he was sworn in.
But more challenging than dissidence, Shinde will have to take on the Shiv Sena-BJP. Post-Gujarat, the saffron alliance sees a revival of Hindutva which could bring it back to power. The Congress can't rest easy hoping that the saffron alliance will break with the BJP wanting to strike out on its own in Maharashtra. Says a Congress leader, "How many times have we heard of Thackeray being upset with the BJP? And then what happens—the two come together."
Deshmukh's exit had been on the cards for almost a year. While CWC members Ambika Soni and Motilal Vora repeatedly assured the press that it was "the will of the mlas" which had prevailed, it is no secret that the party high command was upset with Deshmukh. Multiple factors were involved and complaints about his undemocratic style of functioning was certainly one of them. Basically, Deshmukh failed to satisfy powerful lobbies within his party. He was also charged with over-proximity to Pawar but then, that charge can be levelled—even more strongly—against Shinde.
More importantly, Deshmukh was unable to handle Maharashtra's fiscal crisis, with agricultural subsidies on cotton, sugarcane and onions putting tremendous pressure on an already overburdened treasury.Under Deshmukh, the state has run up debts of Rs 75,000 crore, with major sops to the politically powerful sugar cooperatives. Shinde, having been state finance minister, is expected to do better. Besides, he has also been in charge of Amethi and enjoys a good equation with Priyanka Gandhi.
The fact that the Deshmukh government did not seem to curb profligacy even in the face of such a staggering crisis added to its negative image. The final straw as far as the party high command was concerned was the blatant use of state machinery to launch Deshmukh's son into filmdom. But has the change of CM come a little late in the day? "If performance is the issue, then changing the CM at this late stage is hardly likely to help. They should have made the change a year ago. Now, it will probably create instability. The saffron parties will gain," says a Congress mla.
In fact, Deshmukh had been successful in scuttling the two earlier attempts to nix him. It had made him over-complacent. By the time he got his act together, it was too late. The fact is he didn't even expect to last the three and a half years he did. "Most Congress CMs don't last this long. The high command usually changes them," he joked.
Given his antecedents, Shinde's rise has been impressive. The son of a poor Dalit farmer in Solapur, he had worked as a peon in a sessions court to put himself through college. He then got a job as a police sub-inspector in the state CID, a post he held till he got into politics in the '70s. In the Congress, he has been cabinet minister, state unit chief and CWC member. Deemed a good administrator, he is also said to have the knack of "keeping everyone happy". Although Shinde had rebelled against Pawar with Deshmukh in 1991, he remains close to his political mentor. This had kept him out of the chief ministerial race when the present coalition was formed four years ago.
Other than the saffron alliance, Pawar will be the politician who'll gain most from the mess in the Congress. A weakened, factionalised Congress could only work to his advantage. The NCP will be able to expand its influence and at the very least, push for more seats should the two fight the next elections together. And Shinde is far closer to Pawar than Deshmukh was.
As for the Sena-BJP alliance, a weakened coalition, already riddled by anti-incumbency, is good ammunition for its campaign. Keeping with that spirit, the current buzzword in the saffron camp is unity. Shinde, to be sure, has a tough task ahead.
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