Sunday, November 11, 2012

Challenges ahead for the stoic Chavan as his term ends

MUMBAI, November 11, 2012

When Prithviraj Chavan took over as Chief Minister of Maharashtra in the wake of the Adarsh Society scam in 2010, few expected him to last beyond six months. The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), an ally of the Congress, has been his biggest detractor and Mr. Chavan's removal figured in the standoff with the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) at the Centre earlier this year. In the two years that Mr. Chavan has headed the State, he has come under intense fire for his allegedly tardy decision-making and lack of political acumen and is one of the few heads of a State who has had to issue statistics on the number of files he has cleared in comparison with his predecessors.

As he completes his second term on Sunday, Mr. Chavan, who has taken pains to speak chaste Marathi and travel the length and breadth of the State, has stuck to his guns and not allowed criticism to affect his functioning. He has tried to give the government a "clean" image and the NCP has been the sufferer for it. The State is without its headstrong Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar, who, in a fit of petulance, resigned from the government in September, faced with scams in the water resources department that he headed for the decade ending 2009. The Opposition has, for long, been making noises about the poor irrigation coverage in Maharashtra and the Chief Minister was quick to announce a white paper, which became another thorn in the flesh for the NCP.

The controversial white paper and the antics of the irrigation department headed by Mr. Pawar's close associate Sunil Tatkare have put the NCP in a spot. The Governor had to intervene in the matter of the Kondhane dam, which was coming up in violation of all existing regulations and in the end the State had no option but to get the contract cancelled. Many irrigation projects around Mumbai have been cleared without observing proper laws and there is plenty amiss, especially in the irrigation department. A case in the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court had drawn attention to large-scale violations in awarding contracts, inferior quality work on national projects, such as the Gosikhurd, and inflated estimates.

The government managed to bury crucial reports in 2010 by Nandkumar Vadnere, a former head of the water resources department, who probed Gosikhurd and several other key projects in Vidarbha and came out with shocking violations. While 14 officials had departmental inquiries against them in the matter, there was no action until very recently in the other violations. Pushed to the wall, Mr. Chavan finally ordered departmental inquiries against 45 officials, including the former head of the Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation (VIDC). In addition, the State government faced embarrassment from a whistleblower from water resources, Vijay Pandhre, whose letters to the Chief Minister pointed out the scams in the irrigation department.

The huge backlog in irrigation in Vidarbha and Marathwada, cost inflation of dams and corruption have hogged the limelight in the State for nearly a year and Ajit Pawar was the casualty in the matter — a fact that the NCP is not going to take lying down. While the white paper on irrigation is expected in December during the winter session of the State Legislature, the State's water woes are not going to vanish. There is also a major power crunch looming ahead and with poor water storage in the Jayakwadi dam near Aurangabad, a key power station, it may find it difficult to generate electricity.

Corruption in irrigation has dominated the discourse over the last year, apart from land scams and the construction of Maharashtra Sadan in New Delhi — all involving NCP Ministers. Mr. Chavan has also had to deal with a fire in the State Secretariat, which pinpointed the pathetic capability for disaster management in the seat of power, and also the spurt of violence at Azad Maidan, which paralysed South Mumbai on a Saturday afternoon. The latest scam on contracts for take-home rations in the State, exposed in the commissioner's report to the Supreme Court in October, left the government red-faced — not for the first time — and forced another inquiry. While the NCP is targeting Mr. Chavan openly for his manner of governance and not moving files, support has come for the Chief Minister from an unexpected quarter — the Shiv Sena, which appreciated him for ordering departmental inquiries.

Never having been a votary of coalitions, Mr. Chavan's biggest challenge now is to lead the Congress into the next round of General and Assembly elections in 2014. With the passing away of Vilasrao Deshmukh, there is a huge lacuna in the party's State leadership and speculation is rife once again that Mr. Chavan may be replaced before the polls. For the Congress, emerging from the ashes of the Adarsh scam in the State will be quite a task and it is not enough that it has somehow successfully managed to turn the heat up on the NCP, though not without reason. Faced with a combative NCP determined to restore its public image, the Congress will face the music from its own ally, more than anyone else. That is what Mr. Chavan will have to tackle in the coming months.
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