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The NCP’s gradual implosion may force a merger with Congress, reports Rana Ayyub

Out of time NCP chief Sharad Pawar has much to mend before
the Maharashtra state elections

SHARAD PAWAR’S Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) completed 10 years on June 10, but the event could not have come at a worse time for the party, which is going through what is perhaps its worst phase ever. The NCP, which performed miserably in the Lok Sabha elections, has been mired in controversy and riven by desertions. If insiders are to be believed, party president Sharad Pawar has never been so let down by his own party men. This was evident on the NCP’s 10th anniversary, for while no senior party members or MPs attended the flag-hoisting ceremonies in Delhi, events in Maharashtra — the home of the NCP— were completely low-key, with just RR Patil and Chhagan Bhujbal trying to make up for the absence of Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel. Unlike other years, there were no events or signs of celebration except for a few posters put up in isolated corners of some cities.

One reason for the perfunctory ‘celebration’ was the desertion of one of its senior-most leaders in Goa, Wilfred de Souza, who quit the party the day before its 10th anniversary, along with 27 of the 35 members of the NCP’s Executive Committee. While the NCP put on a brave face, saying de Souza was inefficient and was being eased out to bring in fresh blood, the exit of the other members has brought to the fore infighting within the NCP and the disillusionment within the ranks.

Speaking to reporters, de Souza said, “Where are the issues? Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin is not an issue. So what’s the point of a separate party?” The NCP is a coalition partner of the Congress in the state and has three MLAs, two of whom are ministers. De Souza’s exit has also come at a time when the party is under intense pressure from the Congress in Maharashtra after the arrest and suspension of Pawar’s confidante and senior party leader Padamsingh Patil. While the NCP first defended Patil, stating that he was a respected member of the party and that it would await the court’s verdict, it ultimately succumbed to pressure and suspended Patil. Deputy Chief Minister and senior party leader Chhagan Bhujbal told TEHELKA that the party was right in suspending Padamsingh Patil, adding, “Why should we shy away from saying that his arrest by the CBI has been a blow to us and has caused us considerable embarrassment? It’s a serious charge and has harmed our image. But that does not mean that we will let the opposition members in the state and our allies use it against us.”

After defending the arrested Patil, the NCP succumbed to pressure and suspended him

However, party members and leaders in the state concede that the damage has been done. “Party morale is at an all-time low. The issue was not handled well. We could have done some damage control earlier but now we have given an issue not only to the Shiv Sena and the BJP, but also to the Congress, which will end up having an upper hand in seat-sharing talks for the Maharashtra assembly elections,” a senior minister of the NCP admitted to TEHELKA.

The Congress, on its part, is taking advantage of the situation and sending feelers to NCP cadres and leaders. A senior Congress leader from Maharashtra and a Union Minister at the Centre told TEHELKA that with the cadre disenchanted and the party in disarray, it will not be long before the NCP merges with the Congress.

A calculated decision in this regard is the appointment of Agatha Sangma — a first-time MP — as a minister in the UPA government. Agatha is the daughter of PA Sangma, an old hand in the NCP who, along with Sharad Pawar and Tariq Anwar, left the Congress 10 years ago opposing Sonia Gandhi’s position as the Congress president on grounds that she was of foreign origin. They went on to form the NCP. Sangma’s opposition to the Congress was well-known but the decision by the Congress high command to make Agatha a minister soothed PA Sangma’s pain. A much-mollified father did not take long to express a change of heart towards the Congress and, especially, Sonia Gandhi. Sangma paid a visit to her last week to invite her for his son Conrad’s wedding and shocked the NCP by announcing that he had apologised to Sonia Gandhi for his remarks on her foreign origin.

IN A FACE-SAVING exercise, senior NCP leader Praful Patel shrugged off the incident, calling it a one-off statement. Party General Secretary DP Tripathi, too, called it just an “innocent act of gratitude”. However, that innocent act of gratitude is, nevertheless, giving sleepless nights to the NCP. The party called for introspection in its meeting on June 15, where it addressed the disenchantment amongst party members. While party leaders insisted publicly that the meeting was just to discuss the forthcoming assembly elections in Maharashtra, insiders revealed that it was conducted to soothe the flock after rumours of a Congress-NCP merger did the rounds following the desertion of its ministers in Goa and Sangma’s open apology. The BJP, which has been the NCP’s biggest opponent in Maharashtra, says that not much importance should now be given to the NCP. BJP General Secretary Gopinath Munde said, “Do they have any basis left to call themselves a party? What sort of party is it? Every leader has been saluting Sonia Gandhi and they still call themselves a separate party! Why don’t they ally with the Congress rather than betraying the people?”

An NCP member said, ‘If we abandon the issue of Sonia’s foreign origin, why are we a party?’

NCP leaders in the state also believe that the party has suddenly become very undemocratic. A party member who spoke to TEHELKA on condition of anonymity said, “The party has suddenly become autocratic. Those on the lower rungs are dissatisfied and don’t know what to do. What issues do we have? At least parties like the MNS have the Marathi issue to talk about. If we have abandoned our core issue — that of Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin — why are we a party?”

With the Congress basking in postpoll self-congratulation, the NCP is now wondering about the road ahead. The most worried man of all must be Sharad Pawar, who formed the NCP and harboured dreams of becoming prime minister. Pawar had also mentally prepared himself to hand over the mantle of the party to his daughter, Supria Sule, who is not considered very popular in the party. However, the NCP now has to contend with the arrest of Padamsingh Patil, desertion of senior leaders, and constant pressure from the Congress leadership which has been using Pawar’s bête noir, Vilasrao Deshmukh, to send strong signals to the NCP to go it alone. However, if the NCP allies with Raj Thackeray’s MNS, it can play spoilsport in the upcoming assembly elections. For now, the NCP will have to keep its flock together and infuse fresh blood in the party. At this juncture, each case of rebellion and dissatisfaction will be a boon not only for its political opponents but also for its ‘ally.’

WRITER’S EMAIL
rana@tehelka.com

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