The Lollipop Wars

I have never quite heard of something like this – the Deputy Chief Minister of a state not on talking terms with the Chief Minister because his lollipop was taken away, not by the CM but by a third party which was well within it’s rights to do so.

Ever since the Reserve Bank Of India superceded the board of the apex Maharashtra State Co-operative Bank (MSCB), Ajit Pawar has been in a sulk. As a Congressman crowed, “Daana-paani bund ho gay hai uska!”

Now I would not put it quite as crudely as that but it is true that control of the MSCB is quite crucial to the Nationalist Congress Party. The NCP came into existence because of that bank – Ajit, even then, was in charge and all the stalwarts in the NCP today had loan applications for their various co-operative factories sitting on his desk at the time. They risked rejection if they did not switch to the NCP and without the loans to run the factories, they would have lost their elections – for farmers who, in a way, are bonded to these factories would have been free to vote for anyone they did not dislike (most of them dislike the local MLAs and MPs who are also chairpersons of these factories but are obliged to vote for these masters as their earnings too are tied to the factories).

The Congress has, for years, been trying to break the stranglehold of the NCP over the MSCB and even doyens like Vilasrao Deshmukh could not succeed. Now, Ajit had taken chief minister Prithviraj Chavan to be quite a lightweight. He had believed that Chavan would be a pushover because of his lack of administrative experience. Armed with the title of Deputy Chief Minister, Ajit had even started to “take classes” for Congress ministers and their bureaucrats, demanding their attendance and that of their bureaucrats at periodic reviews of departments that had nothing to do with his jurisdiction. When Congressmen complained to the CM, Chavan asked them to politely tell off Ajit and simply inform the bureaucrats to pay him no heed.

When I had asked Chavan a few weeks ago about this and other intolerable instances of attempts at oneupmanship by Ajit, he had chosen to brush that aside. “Oh, that’s all part of competitive politics that is par for the course. One must not pay too much heed to such things.”

But even then I knew that competitive politics was not such a casual thing for Ajit Pawar. To start with, he had never wanted to be deputy chief minister. “I would rather be CM,” he had told friends, knowing full well that a deputy’s decisions can never be final and he can always be overruled by the CM. But, over the years, when it became apparent that the NCP would never make it to the Maharashtra government on its own or even as the senior partner of the Congress, he saw his chance at playing boss slipping away.

When Prithviraj Chavan replaced his predecessor Ashok Chavan as chief minister in the wake of the Adarsh scam, Ajit saw his chance. He believed Prithviraj would be easily dominated for his lack of administrative skills and for months Ajit was all but a law unto himself in government — he had even threatened to beat up journalists because they refused to give up the chase of a story that might have been less than flattering to the DCM, eliciting an apology from his uncle Sharad Pawar. At the time Pawar made it clear to Ajit who was the boss saying he was apologising not as Ajit’s uncle but as his party’s president. And though Ajit still refused to apologise at least he was shown his place – by his uncle.

Now he is like a child from whom the candy has been taken away. When the MSCB board was superceded two weeks back, Ajit at first tried to bully the CM. In response, Chavan politely tried to explain that the RBI action was not political though Ajit continued to insist that it was a Congress conspiracy and action was taken at the behest of union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee. But soon tiring of Ajit’s tirade, both the CM and other Congressmen told him off in no uncertain terms: we will not tolerate any dadagiri and we will not succumb to your bullying.

Ajit’s response was to stop talking to Chavan – and even hold up all government processes by not attending crucial meetings. He absented himself from all public events where the two were slated to appear together and even a couple of cabinet meetings had to be held up as he continued to sulk.

Ultimately events (and I am told his uncle) forced his hand – as Maharashtra’s finance minister his position would have been greatly compromised had he failed to be present at the Planning Commission’s meeting with state government officials where Montek Singh Ahluwalia was present. But his body language said it all – seated next to the chief minister, he leaned as far away from him as he could. And when asked if this signaled the end of hostilities, could do no more than mumble,”No hostilities. All your imagination.” And make a quick exit, leaving it to the CM to make public details of the plan allocation, a chance that Ajit would never have passed up otherwise.

Although technically the ice may have been broken between the two, I do not believe relations between the CM and his deputy are yet back on an even keel. At least not until Ajit realises that banks are no lollipops to be used as largesse to be distributed among supporters and that a government is no candy bar either. Or that he is no prince-in-waiting to do with public money as he wishes, never mind that his more illustrious uncle is still the uncrowned king of Maharashtra!

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