New Delhi: The Congress party seems content to let Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar shoulder much of the blame for high food prices. Analysts and members of Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), one of the oldest partners of the Congress, see behind this a game of one-upmanship between allies.
Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari said allegations that the Congress is targeting the NCP leader are misplaced: “We are just articulating the concern of millions of Indians.”
Facing flak: A file photo of agriculture minister Sharad Pawar. A leader of Pawar’s party—the NCP—said the Congress wanted to hurt the NCP because ‘we share their support base in Maharashtra’. Atul Yadav/PTI
Tewari said: “There is no ambiguity in the doctrine of collective responsibility, but within its ambit the responsibilities are divided into specific ministries which have specific remits. It’s obvious that the ministry of agriculture, food and consumer affairs needs to play up a proactive role in conjunction with the states.”
The NCP is part of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government.
A top NCP leader, who did not want to be identified, said the Congress’ plan was “clear” to the party. “It is a part of its larger game plan to establish a single party rule,” added this person who also said the Congress has “gained in confidence” after its success in both the general election and subsequent assembly elections.
The Congress won 206 seats, more than it was expected to, in the general election in May, and has only built on this success in assembly elections held since in Maharashtra, Haryana and Arunachal Pradesh. An analyst said that Congress’ moves also indicated that it was working towards a “clear mandate” to form the government of its own in the future.
“Rahul Gandhi’s attempts to strengthen the organization in key states and efforts to rebuild party all across the country indicate this,” said B. Venkatesh Kumar, professor of political science, Mumbai university. The NCP leader added that the Congress wanted to hurt the NCP because “we share their support base in Maharashtra and are emerging as a strong alternative to it in many north-eastern states.
Citing the NCP’s poor performance in the general election—it won only eight of the 22 Lok Sabha seats it contested in Maharashtra, while the Congress won 17 of 26 contested—the Congress forced the party to contest only in 114 seats in the 13 October assembly elections in the state. This number was 10 less than the number of seats the NCP had contested in the previous assembly elections. The Congress contested 174 seats in the 288-member assembly and won 82. The NCP won 62.
In Arunachal Pradesh, the NCP has increased its vote share from 4.28% in 2004 to 19.23% in 2009 and it also won five seats in the 60-member assembly. In Meghalaya, the party has increased its share of votes to 24.38% in 2008 from 19.40% in 2003 and heads the Meghalaya Progressive Alliance that rules the state.
The NCP leader also claimed that the Congress had been trying to “demoralize” the party’s members and workers and cited Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh’s call, during the run up to the elections in Maharashtra, for a merger of the NCP and the Congress.
Mumbai-based political analyst Jai Mrug said big parties have typically tried to strong-arm smaller allies: “In 1967, when the CPM (Communist Party of India-Marxist) came to power in West Bengal, it gave troublesome ministries to its ally Bangla Congress; its party workers would protest before the(se) ministries to mount pressure on the ally.” Mrug added that despite Pawar being in a “weak” position, he and his party have a strong base in Maharashtra and that the Congress wouldn’t find it easy to swallow its smaller ally.
Not everyone is convinced the attacks against Pawar are orchestrated. Kumar Ketkar, editor of Marathi daily Loksatta described these as “routine antagonism”.