A season of success. And, then, a shock defeat. The string of victories for the Congress steered by Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra in the Lok Sabha polls only three months ago have paled in the investigations after the defeat of Sonia Gandhi's hand-picked candidate, Ram Pradhan, for the Rajya Sabha.
In the wake of the Maharashtra bungle, a three-member team sent by Sonia Gandhi—A.K. Antony, Vijaya Bhaskara Reddy and Rajesh Pilot—began investigating why Pradhan, whose victory should have been a certainty, was defeated by party MLAs who voted against him. Suddenly, the state Congress was back to its old confused status with allegations and counter-allegations being traded by different factions. A familiar bickering had brought the Congress to its doom in Maharashtra, helping the Sena-BJP combine sail to power.
While Pawar's role is being questioned by the party president, indications in New Delhi are that the Congress cannot afford to corner the Maratha stalwart beyond a point. The showcause notice issued to his associate, Praful Patel, is seen as a strong enough action. Being an influential leader in a key state like Maharashtra, the party high command is of the view that it needs Pawar as much as he needs the Congress.
The first punitive measures announced by the Congress president within 24 hours after her high-powered team returned from Mumbai last week was not really as even-handed as it was made out to be. True, one showcause notice was sent to both the pro-Pawar and anti-Pawar factions. But it is Pawar's supporters who are crying foul.
While Lok Sabha MP Patel was served the showcause notice, Satish Chaturvedi, a low-profile MLA of the rival camp, was only served a notice. The underlying message was very clear. Pulling up Patel was virtually like rapping Pawar; while Chaturvedi is a lone operator skirting the fringes of the anti-Pawar camp.
MPCC president Ranjit Deshmukh is also on the chopping block. A Pawar camp follower, he was summoned to Delhi by the party high command along with Madhukar Pichad, leader of the opposition in the state assembly. Deshmukh reported sick, leaving Pichad the task of explaining to Sonia Gandhi the mess in Maharashtra.
As the Congress president conveyed her decision—taken sans consultation—to the press through Arjun Singh, supporters kept Pawar informed at the Radisson Fag Royal Viking, a hotel in central Stockholm. Last fortnight, Pawar's trip to London included a two-day visit to Sweden. Pichad says whatever action has to be taken against the defaulters should be after Pawar returns to India on July 2. Pawar, of course, will return to a more strained relationship with Sonia Gandhi, who has of late pushed him to the sidelines within the party and in Parliament.
For Pawar, this defeat and the manner in which it is being hyped up by his detractors is a big blow. After his splendid performance in the Lok Sabha polls, where Pawar engineered an alliance with the RPI and the Samajwadi Party, the Maratha leader had thought that he had more than established himself in the top rungs of the Congress.
After all, it was the Congress performance in Maharashtra that denied the BJP a clean victory in the general elections. If the BJP government today sits tenuously in power, it is only because the Congress-RPI-Samajwadi alliance got 37 of the 48 Lok Sabha seats in the March 1998 general elections. The Sena-BJP alliance got just 10 seats, down from 33 they had in the last Lok Sabha polls held in 1996.
THERE are those who argue that Pradhan's defeat was engineered to thwart the re-emergence of Pawar in Maharashtra. Says Gurudas Kamat, an MP close to Pawar: "It is an accident combined with the possibility of sabotage. There is no way Pawar would have caused Pradhan's defeat. This became an opportunity to settle scores and bring down Pawar. There must be strict action against the culprits who upturned a chance to drive the nail in the coffin of the Sena-BJP government."
Indeed, the ruling combine has not been faring too well. Given a drubbing in the last elections, losing out in the recent assembly bypolls and plagued by rebellion in its ranks, things could not have been worse. To add to this are the problems between chief minister Manohar Joshi and Sena chief Bal Thackeray.
On the other hand, a resurgent Congress was looking to co-opting Independent MLAs, pushing through a no-confidence motion against the state government in the legislature session ahead and ultimately regaining the state with a Pawar-picked chief minister at the helm.
But after the Rajya Sabha poll debacle, the Congress is back to its old, war-torn form. The anti-Pawar camp argues that the Maratha leader brought about the defeat by concentrating on his personal agenda of getting Independents elected or defeated. "We looked like a party set to return to power. Now we are back to square one. This defeat is a clear case of mismanagement and a very casual approach to our own candidates. Now loyalists are being blamed for sabotage when they were not even involved in procedures preceding the election," says Vilasrao Deshmukh, a former minister.
Vilasrao is sore that Pawar supporter Arun Mehta was allowed to contest the legislative council election as an Independent—he (Vilasrao) had once been expelled from the party for daring to contest as an Independent. Senior leaders S.B. Chavan, A.R. Antulay and Sudhakarrao Naik have also returned to the fore of the fight against Pawar—Chavan's son and Antulay's son-in-law were denied tickets. From the Pawar camp comes another missile. Twelve MLAs have been short-listed as cross-voting suspects—all anti-Pawar—which indicates that Pradhan's defeat was a mix of greed and sabotage. "We have given clues to identify about nine MLAs. They defected from both the Rajya Sabha and legislative council quotas. I have proposed that they be sacked from the party," says Ranjit Deshmukh.
As the pro and anti-Pawar groups accuse each other for the defeat, there is no denying that Pawar led the build-up to the biennial elections for six Rajya Sabha and 10 legislative council seats. Pawar met party MLAs and Independents. He personally supervised and made it a prestige issue to ensure the defeat of his onetime associate, Suresh Kalmadi. Kalmadi, an Independent candidate, hoped to win on the votes of Independent MLAs and by weaning the rest from the Congress. The 288-member Maharashtra assembly has a powerful group of 44 Independents. Seven of them are ministers in the Joshi government. In his zeal to keep Kalmadi out of Parliament, Pawar backed another Independent, Vijay Darda, a newspaper baron from Nagpur and son of former state minister Jawaharlal Darda.
It looked like a keen battle between Kalmadi and Darda. But both romped home, and heaped humiliation on the Congress by the defeat of one of its two official candidates, Ram Pradhan.
Large sums of money changed hands, according to party leaders of both camps. "Two people—I am not naming them—cornered 60 MLAs each. One paid Rs 15 lakh to each MLA, the other paid a smaller sum of Rs 10 lakh because he had stronger backing. And they won the battle," says a legislator close to Pawar.
Pawar is now left to deal with disunity. And charges that he let Sonia down, that he did nothing to stop the moneybags from influencing party legislators, and that he may have even allowed Kalmadi to win at the cost of the official candidate. This, his detractors allege, was to facilitate a future foothold in the saffron camp which backs Kalmadi. In the final analysis, the mask of Machiavelli has been re-fixed on Pawar and it will involve a lot of effort before the party high command begins to trust him again.