There are no permanent friends or foes in politics. That rings true yet again as sections of the Congress and the Shiv Sena line up on one side while another section of the Congress and Sharad Pawars Nationalist Congress Party find themselves on the same side on the issue of Vidarbha. The Sena is anti-Vidarbha, the bjp cannot make up its mind, the Congress is divided and the ncp is playing to the disgruntled element within the Congress.
And alongside the politicians, there are also three local newspaper barons whore masterminding the show. The latter seem to be representing the interests of the rich Hindi-speaking Vidarbhites who have been complaining ever since Vidarbha, with 11 districts, integrated into Maharashtra during the states reorganisation in 1960.
The regions the cotton bowl of India but what it lacks is an industrial presence. And ever since the Maharashtra government launched its monopoly purchase scheme for cotton, private spinning and ginning mills of North Indian businessmen have gone bust. If Vidarbha were to separate, it wouldnt be able to sustain such a scheme and private millowners would grow rich overnight.
Expectedly, a conflict has arisen between the Marathi-speaking leaders of Vidarbha and those controlled by Hindi interests. Leading the war cry is former mpcc president and minister for agriculture Ranjit Deshmukh. Opposite him are pitted former Rajya Sabha MP, Shrikant Jichkar, supported by mpcc general-secretary, Avinash Pande.
The coal, forests and thermal power that pro-Vidarbhites are touting as Vidarbhas assets, are in fact, according to Jichkar, no assets at all. Much of Vidarbhas coal is 300 metres under and thus undiggable. The devolution of finances will bring little in royalty from forests. And thermal power looks surplus only as there are no industries in the region. Moreover, a separate Vidarbha would get even less Central largesse than Assam. Itll be in a deficit of Rs 2,847.91 crore when as part of Maharashtra it enjoys a surplus of Rs 11.78 crore.
This doesnt bother pro-Vidarbhites, who say theyll now study the budget to see how a separate state can sustain itself. That provokes outrage in Jichkar and Pande. "You mean these separatists have taken the issue so lightly that they have to now research the viability factor of a separate Vidarbha?" asks Pande.
The bjp, which began by demanding a separate Vidarbha, is coming around to Jichkars viewpoint. Its given little indication that it will support such a dem-and. During a recent rss convention when Nagpur MP Vilas Muttemwar hailed Vajpayee with a slogan for a separate Vidarbha, all he got in return from him was a "Jai Maharashtra". Thats a cry Bal Thackeray has honed to perfection: "How can you demand the integration of Belgaum and Karwar with Maharashtra when you seek to cut off Vidarbha from the state?"
What Thackeray may not be aware of is the internal divisions within the state Congress which has led to differences between the two Deshmukhs: Chief Minister Vilasrao and Ranjit Deshmukh. The latter feels short-changed by the party. He was made to quit for a folly not his own when Ram Pradhan, Sonia Gandhis candidate for the Rajya Sabha, lost the elections in 1998. When Pawar split the Congress, Ranjit opted for Sonia, but was not rewarded for it. The least he had expected was the post of CM. Now he expects the same as a sop for shutting up on Vidarbha.
A separate Vidarbha is a means of decimating the Congress in Maharashtra, says Jichkar, because that is where that partys strength lies in the current scenario. And outside Mumbai, that is a growth area for the Sena as well, which has won more seats here despite its opposition to Vidarbha than the bjp which had until recently been vocal in its support.
The Vidarbha issue certainly does not augur well for the state Congress. And with a section of the party rooting for the new state, Vilasrao will have to use all his political acumen to keep his mlas together. The only thing in his favour perhaps: at least the high command is with him.