Many Congressmen were secretly pleased to see the high-flying former MoS for external affairs Shashi Tharoor bite the dust last week. But with his exit the Congress, which now feels it occupies the moral high ground in the IPL controversy, has decided to take on those it holds responsible for “embarrassing” the party. Foremost among them is not the bjp, which led the charge against Tharoor, but the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), its UPA partner both at the Centre and in Maharashtra. And this even though the NCP’s nine MPs in the Lok Sabha and 62 MLAs in Maharashtra are key to the health of the two governments.
The first signs of this inter-party tensions were visible on April 20, less than 48 hours after Tharoor handed in his resignation to the prime minister, when Union ministers for finance and home, Pranab Mukherjee and P. Chidambaram, summoned NCP chief and cabinet colleague Sharad Pawar. At that meeting, sources said, it was made clear to him that his patronage of IPL commissioner Lalit Modi, the man who “felled” Tharoor, would not be regarded kindly. Curiously, while Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari said that the two Congress ministers “shared details” about the inquiries underfoot with Pawar, NCP spokesperson D.P. Tripathi said the three men discussed “the availability of wheat”, an indication that the latter wanted to play down the issue.
In any case, for the Congress, Pawar was already a bit of a thorn in the flesh: the party has long believed that his superintendence of the agriculture, food and consumer affairs ministries left a great deal to be desired. In fact, when he was asked about rising food prices, he had deflected attention to the prime minister. There were also the murmurs about Union civil aviation minister and NCP leader Praful Patel promoting the interests of private airlines at the cost of the national carriers.
So when rumours about the close links the NCP’s top leaders had with the Adanis and Videocon’s Dhoot popped up (they lost to the consortium put together by Tharoor), it seemed like an opportune moment to hit back and put the spotlight on the NCP, pushing its leaders on to the backfoot.
So, will this current face-off adversely affect Congress-NCP relations? Officially, the Congress maintains that the current controversy will not affect relations but privately, a party general secretary said cryptically, “It will make it easier for the Congress and the NCP to deal with each other.” The fact is, the current episode gives the Congress much wanted leverage against the NCP. But it won’t push this too far. Its leaders admit it is unlikely to go beyond embarrassing the NCP leaders unless, as one party MP put it, “something substantial is found, then we’ll take a call”.
The NCP, meanwhile, is clearly on the run—as was clear at an unscheduled press briefing it called on April 22. Asked whether the Congress was acting like Big Brother, NCP’s Tripathi said, “It is Big Brother...it has 207 seats, we have nine.” To another query on whether the NCP was being targeted, he responded, “We are strong enough to handle the situation.” But in the same breath, he struck a conciliatory note, stressing that the Congress was “not putting any pressure”, that the two parties were “together in government, together as far as all decisions of government are concerned”. He even praised the Congress for its “very forthright and straightforward” handling of the Tharoor affair.
Clearly, the Congress has rattled the NCP—and sent out a message to all its partners. It is Big Brother.