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Cong sets up panel for ‘Deshmukh successor’
Shiv Kumar
Tribune News Service

Mumbai, April 8
Detractors of Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh have begun yet another effort to unseat him and bring about a change in leadership in the state.

Congress sources said today that the party leadership has set up a panel to screen potential successors to Deshmukh. Those said to be part of the panel include defence minister A.K. Antony and Pranab Mukerjee.

Only on Sunday, the Deshmukh camp had put out stories that the Chief Minister had survived amidst rumours that he may be asked to resign and take up a ministry in Delhi. Deshmukh has been accused of non-performance over the increasing number of farmers committing suicide despite a relief package announced by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last year.

Those angling for the top job include revenue minister Narayan Rane, who has been pressuring the party leadership for a change of face in Maharashtra ever since he was wooed away from the Shiv Sena more than two years ago.

Earlier this year, Rane uncharacteristically hit out at Deshmukh’s poor performance and was rewarded with an audience with party president Sonia Gandhi, thereby giving rise to speculation that the defector may get the top job.

But Deshmukh proved to be a survivor, thanks to his excellent contacts in the Capital. This Sunday, the grapevine went, Deshmukh spent a long time networking with top Congress party hotshots, including Ahmed Patel, the man who is called the eyes and ears of Sonia Gandhi.

But the Rane camp did not give up entirely and his supporters, particularly all Indian general secretary in charge of Maharashtra Margaret Alva, is said to be pushing for a change in leadership, sources here say.

Rane’s opponents also that the party high command may plumb for union power minister Sushil Kumar Shinde to replace Deshmukh. Shinde was brought in as Deshmukh’s replacement just before the last Assembly polls.

The raison d’etre being offered in favour of Shinde is also similar - the Dalit card. The bogey of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati expanding into Maharashtra is being used to whip up support for Shinde, a Dalit, who is seen as enjoying a good rapport with coalition partners of the Congress in Maharashtra.

Shinde was groomed into politics by NCP leader and Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar and their ties continue to be strong to this day. On its part, the NCP would rather have Shinde than Narayan Rane, a Maratha who hopes to replace Pawar for the leadership of the politically dominant caste grouping in Maharashtra.

Strangely enough, the Shiv Sena too would be hoping for anyone other than Rane to hold the top job. The saffron party is said to have backed Pratibha Patil in the presidential elections last year as a quid pro quo to keep Rane out. Deshmukh and Pawar are believed to have stitched the deal with Bal Thackeray that proved to be a win-win package for everyone except Rane.

But appearances may still prove to be deceptive. Minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office Prithiviraj Chauhan, who was given additional responsibilities during Sunday’s Cabinet reshuffle, has always been spoken of as a chief ministerial candidate in Maharashtra.

And the Congress can always pull out a dark horse from the scores of aspirants hailing from Maharashtra.

To be fair to him, Deshmukh, true to the Congress tradition, never even believed that performance would be the main criterion for the top job.

“I am here today as Chief Minister for the second time by the grace of Sonia ji,” is his constant refrain.

So even though the party leadership has clarified that no panel has been constituted to look at changing the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, no one least of all Deshmukh himself can say for sure that the top job is secure with the incumbent.



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