Prithviraj Chavan’s litmus test begins for 2014 Lok Sabha elections
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Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan completes three years in office on Monday, and the Congress is hoping that as leader of the party in the state, he will help the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) return to power in Delhi by maintaining a good show in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
In 2009, the Congress won 17 of the 26 seats it contested in the state.
However, to achieve success this time, Chavan will also have to help candidates of the Congress’ alliance partner, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), win seats.
The NCP’s performance in the last Lok Sabha elections was far from satisfactory. It won only eight out of 22 seats. Considering that many of its leaders are facing charges of corruption, including deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar, Chavan has his work cut out.
Chavan is virtually an outsider to Maharashtra’s politics. A mechanical engineer from Birla Institute of Technology and Science at Pilani and Master of Science from University of California at Berkeley, Chavan returned to India in the mid-1980s after a successful stint as a technology entrepreneur in the US at the instance of the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. After successfully contesting the Lok Sabha election in 1991, he remained active in New Delhi.
Nevertheless, he has done well for himself as he has not only managed to retain his post at the state but also made all potential challengers from within the Congress almost irrelevant. The threats included those from state industry minister Narayan Rane, former chief minister Ashok Chavan—who had to step down in the wake of the Adarsh building scam and make way for Prithviraj Chavan—Maharashtra’s forest minister Patangrao Kadam and even state Congress president Manikrao Thakare.
One of the major political achievements of Chavan as chief minister is that he managed to rein in the NCP, whom the Congress likens to sleeping with the enemy. For instance, the NCP had a stranglehold on Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank, and used this influence to control politics in rural Maharashtra. But, within a year of Chavan taking over as chief minister, the board of directors of the bank was superseded by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) for various irregularities.
Also consider the irrigation scandal that came to light in the state. The economic survey of 2011-12 revealed that despite spending Rs.70,000 crore over irrigation projects in the previous decade, the state’s irrigation potential increased only by 0.1%. During this entire period, the NCP men headed the irrigation ministry; deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar was at the helm as a irrigation minister for almost eight years.
Documents about increased cost and contracts going to a clique of contractors were being leaked out to opposition parties, social activists and journalists. Though the involvement of the chief minister’s office was never proved, the NCP leadership believes that these documents would not have become public without the blessings of Chavan.
As an administrator, Chavan also brought about much-needed transparency in the urban development ministry, which is considered by many to be the fountainhead of big-ticket corruption in the state. He broke the nexus between politicians, bureaucrats and builders to a large extent.
For example, he removed the discretionary powers to grant extra floor space index (the FSI indicates permissible construction area on any plot) from politicians and bureaucrats. Now anyone who is willing to pay a premium for extra FSI is granted it. This simple decision has added over Rs.1,500 crore to the coffers of the state government and Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, according to the urban development ministry.
Another major achievement of the Chavan administration was the way it handled the drought situation in 2012-13. Despite a little over one-third of the state under the severe grip of drought, the state ensured that no farmer lost any cattle to scarcity of water and fodder.
However, the big question is whether this is enough to ensure victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Of the 17 seats won by Congress, eight came from urban areas; it won all six Lok Sabha seats in Mumbai and also in Pune and Nagpur.
This time around, though, the urban population is fed up with the host of scams (mining, coal, 2G and Commonwealth) and rising prices of essential commodities, all of which appear to be gravitating them towards Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.
Another factor that helped Congress during last Lok Sabha polls in the state was that the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) was on an ascendance but now seems to have stabilised as a political force. This time, though, it is believed that as Modi and MNS chief Raj Thackeray share a close personal rapport, the MNS may not field strong candidates for urban seats.
So Chavan will have to handle the situation deftly. His role becomes all the more important since political analysts are expecting the Congress to fare badly in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
The United Progressive Alliance won 27 seats out of 39 in Tamil Nadu in the 2009 elections, which includes 18 by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and eight by the Congress. Similarly, in Andhra Pradesh, Congress won 33 out of 42 seats, including 21 from the Seemandhra region.
But this time around, the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh into Seemandhra and Telangana has created huge unrest in the Seemandhra region, which does not bode well for the prospects of Congress.
Similarly, as Congress is not part of an alliance led by any major Dravidian party in Tamil Nadu, it will struggle to maintain its 2009 tally in Tamil Nadu, too.