Prithviraj Chavan was parachuted from Delhi to clean up the post-Adarsh mess in Maharashtra. Now his very survival is at stake. Ashok Malik decodes how the man with good intentions is losing the plot
SO IS it one year or one month? If you believe the Narayan Rane camp in the Maharashtra unit of the Congress, the state’s minister for industry, port, employment and self-employment (“promotion and self-promotion”, quips a factional rival) is all set to replace Prithviraj Chavan as chief minister in a matter of weeks. “Rane has been boasting about it,” says a legislator, “he’s confident the high command will give him the job in May. The outside limit he’s been talking about is 15 June.”
Others are less sure. “I don’t think there will be an immediate change,” says a Congress MLA who seems to take a more disinterested view, “but there will have to be a new person in 2013, about a year or 18 months before the next election. Prithviraj Chavan may be a good man, an honest man, an intellectual. But he can’t win us the election.” His brief and polite assessment gives body to that old line — damn with faint praise.
To travel to Mumbai and spend time in the corridors of Mantralaya, the state secretariat and the Legislative Assembly offers a strange, almost eerie experience. Complex at the best of times, Maharashtra’s politics is particularly conspiratorial at the moment, with factional deals and whispers within the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and sometimes cutting across the two uneasy allies.
At the centre of the storm is a chief minister who is widely seen as the most honest and the least influenced by the land syndicates in the state’s near-term past. Yet, Chavan may well be Abhimanyu trapped in a Chakravyuh he just doesn’t understand. He must be the only chief minister in Indian politics today without a legislative faction of his own.
He will remain chief minister, his detractors say, only as long as the party central leadership — a reference to Congress president Sonia Gandhi — can stave off pressure from his rivals. It is almost as if the man himself is irrelevant to his own job security.
To his opponents, everything seems to be wrong with Chavan. He is described as an outsider imposed on the state from New Delhi, where he was minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
“When he came here in November 2010, he barely recognised MLAs or senior bureaucrats,” says a Congress functionary. “He is more a chief secretary than a chief minister,” says an NCP MLA who dismisses him as “non-political”. Files are piling up in his office without a decision, goes an accusation.
Chavan’s very reputation for integrity is turned against him. “The high command has not got the requisite ‘contribution’ from Maharashtra,” says a senior politician, providing “evidence” of the chief minister’s imminent departure.
Apparently, Narayan Rane’s recent meeting with Motilal Vora, the Congress’ all-India treasurer, is being interpreted in this light — a disturbing reminder about how some state leaders in national parties are increasingly comfortable with the ‘franchise fee’ model.
WHEN MAHATMA Gandhi was assassinated, his friend and admirer George Bernard Shaw is said to have remarked: “It shows how dangerous it is to be too good.” Chavan’s predicament in Mumbai’s cesspool-type politics may perhaps offer a similar explanation. “I’m here to do a job,” he says, when asked if predictions of his imminent removal and reincorporation in the Union government worry him.
Chavan became chief minister after the Adarsh Housing Society scandal claimed his predecessor, Ashok Chavan. It was alleged at the time that land belonging to the army and apparently sanctioned for a housing project for Kargil war widows was instead appropriated by a politician-army brass clique and a series of senior Congress politicians, including Ashok Chavan, secured apartments for themselves or for family members in the heart of Mumbai. A judicial commission has just said that the Adarsh site never belonged to the army but was always with the Maharashtra government, a view the defence ministry is contesting.
“It was a toxic matter,” says a friend of Prithviraj Chavan’s, “five ministers had touched the Adarsh file, three former chief ministers were implicated. Prithiviraj’s job was clearly to do a clean-up.”
It wasn’t easy, not in a state where property deals — particularly in the Mumbai-Pune region — are not so much the end product of political corruption as the source. One of the reasons property prices are so extraordinarily high in Mumbai is that those invested in the city have a vested interest in keeping land supply limited, in not allowing other cities to develop close by and therefore not decongesting or creating urban alternatives. As a result, property rates in Mumbai just keep going up and up.
A tall order for Chavan
The Adarsh scam is proof of the realtor-politician nexus that blights Maharashtra
• Five ministers had touched the Adarsh file, three former CMs were implicated. Prithiviraj’s job was to do a clean-up
• It wasn’t easy, not in a state where property deals are not so much the end product of political graft as the source
• About 25 cartels comprise the property mafia in Mumbai and the other cities of Maharashtra. These cartels extend across parties, say insiders
• Only this week, the CAG indicted Vilasrao Deshmukh and Chavan’s colleagues, including Rane, Chhagan Bhujbal and Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil
• To challenge or much less bring down this entire edifice would not just require the dogged persistence of a stubborn CM. It would require a complete revolution
It is beyond Chavan — almost beyond anybody — to rectify this in a few short years.
Leading members of the Congress and of the NCP have been labelled property thieves in report after report. Only this week, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) indicted Union Minister for Science and Technology Vilasrao Deshmukh and several of Chavan’s Cabinet colleagues — including Rane, Chhagan Bhujbal, Patangrao Kadam and Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil — of allotting government land to trusts run by them or their relatives at sub-market prices (in some cases a fifth of market rates).
Purposes for which the trusts got the land were not adhered to. In Deshmukh’s case, a dental college was not built. In Rane’s, an educational institution became a banquet hall. The examples can go on.
To be fair, the muck is not limited to the NCP and the Congress. “About 25 cartels,” says a political insider, “comprise the property mafia in Mumbai and the other cities of Maharashtra. These cartels extend across parties.”
Recently Kripashankar Singh, a former state minister, was forced to resign as Mumbai unit Congress president after it was alleged he had two PAN cards, about two dozen bank accounts and assets worth Rs 100 crore — which couldn’t be explained by the fact that he had begun life in the Maximum City 40 years ago as a vegetable vendor.
‘Prithviraj Chavan may be a good man, an honest man, an intellectual. But he can’t win us the 2013 election,’ says a Congress legislator
Following his son’s implication in the 2G spectrum scam and a series of other revelations, Singh became damaged goods for his party and was reduced to a fugitive, on the run from the law. “Astonishingly,” says the political insider, “if you consider the gravity of the case against Kripashankar, the opposition hasn’t really gone after him or the Congress.”
The reason, it is said, is Kripashankar Singh belongs to the same property cartel as the daughter of a very, very senior NCP leader and the son of a very, very senior Shiv Sena leader.
Many of these so-called cartels are organised around or fronted by a formal corporate name — maybe even a listed company, the shares of which are traded on the stock exchange. To challenge or much less bring down this entire edifice would not just require the dogged persistence of a stubborn chief minister — it would require a revolution in Maharashtra politics. The stakes against Chavan succeeding are just too high.
IT IS not as if Chavan doesn’t recognise this. A well-regarded, thinking politician, he has an engineering degree from the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani, a Master’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and a formidable grasp of policy issues that made him the pivot of the PMO in New Delhi.
Son of Anandrao Chavan, a Left-leaning politician who began his career in the Peasants and Workers Party before moving to the Congress, Chavan represents an accomplished political legacy. His father was a minister in the Jawaharlal Nehru-Indira Gandhi years, being elected from the Karad Lok Sabha constituency for four successive terms till his death in 1974. After him his wife, Premlata Chavan, took over the seat. It went to their son in 1991.
Prithiviraj Chavan won three successive elections before being defeated in 1999 by an unheralded former civil servant called Srinivas Patil, put up by the NCP. Since then, Chavan has not been able to reclaim his former family borough. He has served as a Rajya Sabha member and is now chief minister by virtue of being a member of the Legislative Council.
When he became chief minister in 2010, Chavan asked Vilasrao Patil, MLA from Patan (Karad) to resign and let him contest the seat. Patil refused, something unthinkable in the context of other states and chief ministers, and Chavan had to be content becoming an MLC.
Chavan’s effacement in Karad was a personal mission for Sharad Pawar, and this represents a two-generation rivalry that has a deep impact on the current government in Maharashtra. Pawar’s mentor and godfather in politics was YB Chavan, chief minister of Maharashtra before moving to the Centre as defence minister in the aftermath of the 1962 war. Like Pawar, YB Chavan prided himself with being the consummate local politician, the type who knew taluk and village-level workers by first name.
‘Deshmukh or Rane may have a reputation problem but they are capable of taking on the Sena and the NCP,’ says a party veteran
One of YB Chavan’s rivals within the Congress was Anandrao Chavan, Prithivraj’s father. Anandrao was often painted as a favourite of the Congress national leadership and an urbane but ultimately limited-influence politician, as opposed to the rooted YB Chavan. As it happens, these pat descriptions and this mutual suspicion have passed on to Prithivraj Chavan and Sharad Pawar.
There is also an element of intra-Maratha conflict (they belong to different sub-groups of Marathas) but more than identity, it is the politics and the political style that is so different. As a minister in the UPA government says, “If you know Prithvi, you know he loathes Pawar.”
However, in Mumbai, the two need each other. The Congress (82 seats) and the NCP (62) together make exactly half the 288-member Legislative Assembly. While Chavan leads the government, Pawar is the most powerful man in the state. Ajit Pawar, Sharad’s nephew, is deputy chief minister and finance minister. RR Patil of the NCP is home minister.
“It is strange,” Chavan told a friend on taking over as chief minister, “in every other state, the chief minister controls the home and finance ministries, directly or indirectly. Not here.”
THE ABSENCE of a rural or hinterland base has made Chavan the first chief minister in a long time to be sympathetic to Mumbai’s concerns, and not just see it as a means to feather a nest elsewhere. For previous chief ministers such as Pawar (Baramati), Deshmukh (Latur), Ashok Chavan (Nanded) and Sushil Kumar Shinde (Solapur), Mumbai was always a secondary priority as opposed to their strongholds in western Maharashtra or Marathwada. Chavan saw it differently.
For one, he realised Mumbai was crucial to the Congress, giving it 17 MLAs in 2009 — or one-fifth of the party’s Assembly strength of 82. Mumbai has 34 MLAs. Neighbouring Thane, a Shiv Sena bastion, has 24 MLAs. This collective strength (58 seats) of the Mumbai metropolitan area is the same as that of the five districts of western Maharashtra (Kolhapur, Sangli, Satara, Pune and Solapur), which also account for 58 Assembly seats.
The absence of a rural or hinterland base has made Chavan the first CM in a long time to be sympathetic to Mumbai’s concerns
Even so, in popular perception, western Maharashtra is the backbone of the state, the politically prime region, home of Sharad Pawar and the sugar barons, kings and kingmakers.
To Chavan’s credit, he has sensed the neglect of Mumbai and its infrastructure more than several of his predecessors. That’s why, when asked what he considers his achievements, he recounts a series of civic upgrade projects he has pushed: “The Sewri-Nhava Sheva trans-harbour link had been pending since 2000, despite two tender processes. The new airport had been pending since 2000. The Dharavi slum redevelopment plan has been pending since 2004. Use of mill land to house the urban poor had been pending. We have got moving on these.”
The four heavyweights waiting in the wings
Narayan Rane is the hot favourite to succeed Chavan but there are others who feel they have a better claim to the post
Narayan Rane, 60, Congress
The minister for industry, port, employment and self-employment has occupied the chief minister’s chair before (1999) and is widely tipped to replace Chavan. Rane’s camp believes the high command will give him the top job in May
Vijay Thorat, 59, Congress
The revenue minister’s name has been doing the rounds as a potential chief minister thanks to clean image. But not many believe that he has what it takes to effectively manage the Congress government or lead the party into the 2014 Assembly polls
Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil, 54, Congress
The agriculture minister is considered as a long-term bet with plenty of potential. But he is among the high-profile leaders named in the CAG report for getting government land on the cheap for trusts linked to themselves or their relatives
Ajit Pawar, 52, NCP
The deputy CM believes he should have been offered the top job years ago. But his uncle Sharad asked him to play the patient game. Rumour has it that Ajit has been in touch with the BJP-Sena and mulling options of forming an alternative government
Not everybody is convinced. On 12 April, Milind Deora, MP from Mumbai and minister of state for communication and IT in New Delhi, tweeted: “Mumbai’s Aquarium and Zoo revamp further delayed. No progress on Girni Kamgar issue and Sewri-Nhava Sea Link. Severe decision deficit in Maha.” It got people wondering if a defining revolt against Chavan was about to break out.
Chavan’s friends say the “decision deficit” is not really about policy issues, where the chief minister has acted, but in his refusal to consider case-by-case requests from ministers and MLAs.
As an official in the chief minister’s office (CMO) explains, “MLAs would come and seek change of land-use in a particular plot from playground to commercial, or ask for FSI to be increased 80 or 100 percent.” FSI refers to floor space index, the amount of built-up floor area (and therefore extra floors) that can be constructed on a given plot of land.
Chavan had spoken out against this “file positive hai” culture, whereby MLAs and power-brokers lobby the CMO to get a positive signature on a file. “I have allowed a 0.35 percent increase in FSI,” he says, “but only after payment.” This strictness has interrupted a lot of business plans.
Admittedly, some of the measures taken seem a little bizarre. Amin Patel, Congress MLA from South Mumbai, has been campaigning against a proposal that developers must construct a maximum one car park for every 300 square feet of tenement space in a building.
“Earlier, it was a minimum of one car park,” says Patel, “but, yes, people began misusing their car parks, selling them or converting them into extra rooms. The answer to that is better policing by the government, not adding to Mumbai’s parking problems.”
In 15 municipal corporation elections held recently, the Congress performed indifferently. On paper, it has put together boards in seven, but it lost the big one: Mumbai. “The Shiv Sena had been in power,” says a Congress functionary, “and there was definitely a good chance for us. But we made a mess of it.” Not surprisingly, he blames the chief minister.
WHO WILL replace Chavan if and when the Congress president decides to remove him? While Rane, a street-fighter who was the Shiv Sena chief minister for a short period in 1999, fancies his chances, he is not the only candidate. Deshmukh and Ashok Chavan are believed to have come together and now control 40 MLAs, half the party legislative strength. Presumably they will be together till they manage to displace Chavan.
Chavan’s friends say the ‘decision deficit’ is not really about policy issues, but in his refusal to consider requests from ministers
Two other names doing the rounds are Minister for Revenue Vijay ‘Balasaheb Bhausaheb’ Thorat and Minister for Agriculture Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil.
Asked to make an independent assessment, a BJP functionary said, “Thorat has the best image but will be ineffective. Vikhe-Patil is a long-term bet, in his early 50s, with potential. Rane is probably most useful in the short run. But then in the Congress, the favoured name often doesn’t get the job.”
The problem is many of these people — Rane, Deshmukh, Vikhe-Patil — figure in the CAG report or in one or the other land swindle. “That is why,” says a Congress veteran, “I feel the high command will wait for some time till this CAG issue dies down. And then bring Vilasrao Deshmukh or Rane. They may have a reputation problem but they are capable of taking on the Sena and the NCP. Doesn’t the BJP need Yeddyurappa in Karnataka?”
The other imponderable is Ajit Pawar, the emerging NCP strongman who believes he should have become chief minister long ago. He asked for the job in 2004, when the NCP finished with more seats than the Congress, but his uncle, Sharad, urged him to sacrifice so that the NCP could drive a harder bargain in the UPA government in New Delhi.
BJP-Sena sources confirm Ajit Pawar has been in touch with them with regard to an alternative government in this Assembly itself — led by Ajit and supported by the Sena and the BJP. “Right now,” says a senior BJP legislator, “the timing doesn’t suit Sharad Pawar at the Centre. Maybe in 2013 it will. And that’s what Ajit hopes.”
Congress leaders admit to knowledge of these ideas and plans. “An NCP, Shiv Sena, BJP alliance in 2014 under Ajit could shut us out,” says a Congress MLA, “and that is why we need to get more energetic at the top.” The dig of course is at the chief minister.
In the end, it is not clear how many of these theories are true and how many are being floated simply in an attempt to confuse the Congress central leadership and make Prithviraj Chavan’s position that much more precarious. Nevertheless, one thing is apparent: Chavan will not lead the Congress-NCP alliance into the next election. He’s the right man — but in the wrong polity.
Ashok Malik is Contributing Editor, Tehelka.