Home Minister Shivraj Patil’s head rolled on Sunday and there is a clamour for Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh’s resignation. It would, however, have been impossible to ‘sacrifice’ the CM while retaining the more culpable of the two in charge of Maharashtra — (now-ex) Deputy Chief Minister and Minister for Home R.R. Patil.
Both Shivraj and R.R. Patil are honest, sincere gentlemen. But they are hopelessly ineffectual when it comes to crisis management. Just as Shivraj Patil is known for his loyalty to Sonia Gandhi, R.R. Patil is fiercely committed to his own party chief, Sharad Pawar. Most Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) supporters believe that loyalty was about all that qualified him for the job. So when the Congress chief proved she could place country above personal loyalty, the NCP chief had to match her gesture or be faced with charges of self-interest.
Maharashtra is peculiarly placed in terms of governance and law and order. The Chief Minister has overall charge of the state but has no control over the Home Ministry because it led by an NCP man. No NCP minister is answerable to the Chief Minister and he cannot enforce any disciplinary action against a large part of his Cabinet because they take orders only from Pawar, a Union Minister, and an extra-constitutional authority in Maharashtra.
The danger in this arrangement was illustrated best by the way R.R. Patil let Maharashtra burn and allowed North Indians to be beaten up by Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray and his goons in February, giving Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray’s nephew a larger-than-life image which he did not deserve. Deshmukh, always politically correct and incapable of the kind of overriding action that Pawar would have taken under similar circumstances, found himself unable to do anything lest he stepped on the NCP’s toes and upset the coalition government that is so crucial to his own party’s interests in New Delhi.
It was only in September when Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh — under fire from coalition partners — called for action against Raj Thackeray that Deshmukh felt ‘safe’ enough to overrule his Home Minister and take charge. He then decisively ordered the MNS leader’s arrest, withdrew his ‘Z’ category security and moved for cancellation of the bail granted to Raj Thackeray. Since then, we have hardly seen much of the MNS leader.
The Maharashtra government is now under attack again for its slow response during the latest terror attack. When the attack began, Deshmukh was in Kerala and the man on the ground was R.R. Patil. But the former Deputy Chief Minister failed to recognise the enormity of the situation. He also failed to gain the confidence of the policemen who, faced with this dual authority of the Chief Minister and Home Minister, often played one against the other. But even after the proportion of the tragedy and government failure became clear, all R.R. Patil said was that “such incidents happen in big cities”. This comment added insult to injury but was made not out of offence; he just did not know any better.
But the man to really blame for this fiasco is Sharad Pawar. He posts incompetent men in such high offices so that they can never upstage him. Pawar has a long-standing fear of other Marathas becoming larger-than-life figures and dwarfing him in the process. It’s not that the NCP doesn’t have capable leaders. But Pawar does not want anyone to grow. And in this specific instance, he knew that the incapability of a man like R.R. Patil would keep the Chief Minister in check, thereby not allowing either Deshmukh or the Congress to ever become a ‘threat’ for him.
Maharashtra never had a tradition of placing the Home portfolio with anyone but the Chief Minister. The first time this tradition was broken was when the Shiv Sena-BJP came to power in 1995 and big brother BJP wanted the Home Ministry to ‘equalise’ the Shiv Sena’s claim to the CM’s Office. But then Manohar Joshi had no fears of disturbing the coalition by stepping on Gopinath Munde’s toes. The nature of the alliance was such that only Bal Thackeray was the de facto Home Minister and the rest did not matter.
Sadly, today it matters. But the Congress Chief Minister is neither de facto nor de jure in charge of law and order in his own state. And yet the buck must stop with him.