New Delhi: The Congress party has failed to break the deadlock with ally Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which wants a greater say in the ruling coalition at the Centre and in Maharashtra and set a Thursday deadline for the demand to be met.
The NCP, which is part of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) at the Centre, said its ministers Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel may not attend the next meeting of the Cabinet too, having already skipped one meeting and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s dinner for outgoing President Pratibha Patil in a bid to ratchet up pressure on the government.
Compounding the trouble for the Congress, more than 40 of its legislators in Maharashtra wrote to state unit president Manikrao Thakre, criticizing chief minister Prithviraj Chavan’s style of functioning and making their own demands.
Issues related to Maharashtra are at the centre of the confrontation NCP triggered on the weekend with the Congress.
The two parties together rule the state.
The NCP’s revolt, on the grounds that Pawar’s seniority and experience had not been respected in the UPA, came after Chavan started looking into spending on irrigation projects in Maharashtra.
The irrigation ministry has been held by NCP leaders including Ajit Pawar, the nephew of the federal agriculture minister.
The opposition has alleged that Rs 70,000 crore has been spent on dams, with benefits accuring to just an additional 0.1% of land.
According to a person familiar with the development, Pawar also wants a better portfolio in the cabinet reshuffle that’s widely expected after former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee’s elevation to the presidency.
Pawar also has differences with minister for consumer affairs, food and public distribution K.V. Thomas on the export policy relating to farm products, the same person said.
While the agriculture minister argued that export of wheat, rice and sugar would benefit farmers, the food minister insisted that the benefits will be reaped only by some rich farmers.
Thomas has also held that exports may create a shortage of foodgrains at a time when the government is set to introduce the Food Security Bill.
A Congress leader expressed confidence that the differences will be resolved soon. “Pawar is a shrewd politician who knows how and when to bargain,” said the leader, a party general secretary, who did not want to be identified.
No NCP leader was available for comment.
The uncertainty introduced by the NCP’s confrontationist posture has raised concerns that it may prolong the policy inaction that has characterized the UPA’s second term in power as it battled corruption scandals and controversies.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other Congress leaders have recently hinted at action on key policy matters.
Experts are already pessimistic. Kunal Kumar Kundu, senior economist and general manager, India, at economic research and analysis firm Roubini Global Economics said serious economic reforms measures are unlikely to happen till 2014 when the next general election is due.
“The government should rather focus on measures that have less political connotation and help in doing business in the country. For example, it should put pending power projects on the fast track and announce transparent measures for land acquisition,” he said.
He added that measures such as foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail and a diesel price increase would need political consensus that’s currently lacking.
The NCP’s pressure or the increasing criticism against Chavan by the party’s state unit are not likely to provoke the Congress leadership to change the leadership in Maharashtra, said another Congress general secretary.
In a letter to the Maharashtra Congress unit chief, some Congress legislators have criticised Chavan and sought intervention to “settle” issues such as delays in implementing infrastructure projects and in filling administrative posts besides the release of additional grants for developmental projects.
“The letter I have got pertains to problems the MLAs (members of the legislative assembly) are facing in their constituencies. I have spoken to the CM (chief minister) about it and their work will be done,” Thakre told reporters.
Meanwhile, Kirit Somaiya, a senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader from Maharashtra, wrote to the Comptroller and Auditor General seeking a special audit of the work undertaken by NCP ministers in the public works department and the irrigation sector in the state.
The BJP held a strategy meeting in the National Capital with its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The opposition leaders, who met to discuss the 7 August vice-presidential election, assessed the “current political situation which included the crisis in the UPA”, said a person familiar with the development.
Mint’s Asit Ranjan Mishra and Sahil Makkar and PTI contributed to this story.