Speculation that the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) would join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) before Sunday’s cabinet reshuffle had reached a point when party president Sharad Pawar had to issue a clarification.
Pawar told reporters in Pune that there was no truth in media reports that two MPs from the NCP would be made ministers in the Modi cabinet. Before Pawar cleared the air, his daughter and MP from Baramati, Supriya Sule had also re-positioned the NCP as an ally of the Congress rather than the BJP. Senior NCP leader and party’s Rajya Sabha MP Praful Patel also ruled out joining NDA.
In Maharashtra, the NCP rank and file say the speculation and subsequent clarifications by top party functionaries underline the “state of drift” the NCP is in since 2014.
“That Pawar saheb and other senior party leaders had to clarify things means the speculation had gained some credence and could not be dismissed by just party spokespersons. The speculation and denials are symptomatic of the state of drift we are in since we lost elections in 2014,” said a senior NCP leader in Maharashtra, requesting anonymity.
He referred to both the general elections in mid-2014 when the NCP won only six seats including four in Maharashtra, and the state assembly elections later which gave the party 42 seats. “Even before the full results were out in Maharashtra assembly elections, our senior leaders declared support to the BJP. We succeeded in creating an impression that it was with the NCP support that the BJP won the floor test in Maharashtra as the Shiv Sena had not declared support by then. But that also raised serious questions about our credibility and those questions persist,” admitted this leader, adding the latest speculation about the NCP joining the NDA stemmed from this “lack of credibility”. He also cited the recent Rajya Sabha elections in Gujarat in which the two NCP legislators are believed to have voted against Congress nominee Ahmed Patel. Soon after Patel won after the Election Commission held two Congress legislators’ votes “invalid”, the NCP stayed away from an all-opposition meeting in Delhi.
“The speculation that we are moving close to the NDA gained credence after this,” the leader said.
A long-time NCP strategist and legislator in Maharashtra said the party faced three “public challenges” which had partly led to this credibility crisis. “By offering our support without the BJP asking for it, we showed ourselves as a party without an ideological core. The people in Maharashtra saw this as a possible trade-off between BJP and NCP over the corruption charges against some of our leaders. We have not been able to respond to this challenge that we are ready to compromise on ideology if BJP goes soft on the corruption charges. The second challenge is about stopping the BJP in its clinical effort to gain our territory in the cooperative and agriculture sectors. There is a challenge of leadership also, and we have not been able to project a credible leader who can lead the party effectively in Maharashtra,” said this strategist, who did not want to be identified. He said the NCP had several second-rung leaders but none of them held out a “leadership promise” for the future. “There are corruption charges against some of them while others simply lack the drive to take on the BJP,” he said.
Last week, senior NCP leader Ajit Pawar criticized some of the decisions of the BJP-led government in Maharashtra on the state’s cooperative sector, where the NCP has high stakes. Cooperative institutions like district cooperative banks and agencies like the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) have a direct relationship with the farmers and the NCP has nurtured this constituency to expand its patronage. But decisions like the appointment of two independent directors to the board of banks, deregulation of fruits and vegetables from the purview of APMC-regulated markets, and the right to vote given to farmers to elect APMC boards, have ensured that the NCP’s control of these sectors faces a serious challenge from the BJP. Pawar too has questioned the rationale behind these decisions, indicating that there is some discomfort within the NCP over loss of territory.
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