Maharashtra’s Democratic Front government suddenly plunged into a crisis Tuesday as Deputy Chief Minister and NCP leader Ajit Pawar quit the cabinet, while other party ministers offered to resign and legislators called for leaving the Congress-led coalition.
Pawar, 53, resigned in a cloud of allegations that he had arbitrarily doled out irrigation contracts worth over Rs.20,000 crore when he was the water resources minister 1999-2009, before he was elevated as deputy chief minister and handled the plum finance and energy portfolios.
However, Pawar said he would remain the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) Legislature Party leader until his party and legislators desired.
He declared that he would not join the government as a minister until his name was “cleared” of the alleged irregularities. “People are jealous of the rise of the NCP,” Pawar asserted, but did not elaborate.
Amid a clamour by some NCP legislators to quit the ruling coalition, all the remaining 19 party ministers in the 43-member Prithviraj Chavan government also offered to quit and sent in their resignations to state party chief Madhukarrao Pichhad.
A numbed Congress kept mum over the surprise developments while Chavan, waiting to board a plane at Mumbai to go to Pune, immediately returned to ‘Varsha’, the chief minister’s official residence, for consultations with his party leaders.
NCP chief and union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, senior leader and union minister Praful Patel as well as Ajit Pawar himself, however, assured the Congress that the NCP would not quit the ruling coalition or destabilise the government.
“There is no question of pulling out from the Maharashtra government,” Sharad Pawar told Times Now channel, adding the state government is “stable”.
“My word is final. No other NCP minister would resign from the state government,” asserted the NCP chief, who said he had given “permission” to Ajit Pawar, his nephew, to resign.
The opposition, particularly Shiv Sena executive president Uddhav Thackeray, attempted to fuel the crisis by calling upon Chavan to accept the NCP challenge by accepting all the resignations and not to succumb to its “pressure tactics”.
However, the Congress, which two months ago sought to present a White Paper on the state irrigation scenario, was silent on the developments.
Chavan merely said late Tuesday that he would take a final decision after consulting all concerned.
On the other hand, an aggressive Pichhad said the NCP chief would take a final call on all the resignations, after a crucial party meeting here Wednesday afternoon.
The developments Tuesday are seen as a move by Ajit Pawar to checkmate both the Congress and the opposition which has been gunning for him and other NCP ministers with accusations of corruption.
At another level, it is also seen as a strategy by party chief Sharad Pawar to ease out some NCP ministers who are under a cloud, like Chhagan Bhujbal, Sunil Tatkare and Gulabrao Devkar.
Ajit Pawar’s resignation, followed by all NCP ministers’, would offer the party chief a free hand to appoint people with a clean record and probably reward some of his favourites like Home Minister R.R. Patil with additional responsibilities.
The Tuesday developments came barely two months after a week-long stand-off between the Congress and NCP in the central government when both Pawar and Patel stayed away from crucial cabinet meetings chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The issue was, however, resolved after a co-ordination committee mechanism was created at both the central and the state level.
In Maharashtra, the NCP is apparently irked by Chavan’s attempt to question the decisions and performance of party ministers, unlike his predecessors.
Known for his brusque style of functioning, Ajit Pawar, who once admitted that he was “a ruffian in politics”, had shot into limelight in November 2010 when he staged a coup to dislodge Bhujbal from the deputy chief minister’s post.
He grabbed the opportunity when the Congress was compelled to replace the scam-tainted Ashok Chavan with Prithviraj Chavan.
Ajit Pawar proved his worth when he catapulted the NCP to the top spot in the local bodies elections earlier this year and also cobbled up strong alliances to bag power in 10 important municipalities in the state.