Weekend over, Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) will meet in Delhi this afternoon to decide on whether it will continue to participate in the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre.
The party says it has discussed the problems it has with the Congress leadership. In a letter sent to the Prime Minister and UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi on Friday, Sharad Pawar warned that his NCP may choose to opt out of the government and provide external support.
Mr Pawar's party has overtly said that the UPA government must begin to take more decisive action in the run-up to the 2014 general elections and learn to consult its coalition partners and take them along, but the eye of the storm, say sources, is in Maharashtra, where the Congress and the NCP run the state government together. Sources say the NCP is unhappy with Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, who is perceived to be targeting NCP ministers in his cabinet. They want him replaced.
But sources now say that state unit of the Congress and Chief Minister Chavan are preparing to hit back at the NCP. Mr Chavan has called a meeting today to discuss the standoff with the NCP; all office bearers have been asked to attend the meeting.
The NCP finds Mr Chavan an ineffective decision maker and partymen have complained that he takes too long to approve projects. He has also earned the NCP's ire for demanding a white paper to explain money spent on irrigation in the last 10 years. That includes a long stint of Mr Pawar's nephew and now Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar as Irrigation Minister from 2000 to 2009; the portfolio is now held by the NCP's Sunil Tatkare. The NCP wants Ajit Pawar's term exempted and has suggested that the inquiry look at the last three years. The allegation is that despite over Rs 70,000 crore being spent on dams, only 0.1% of land was added to the area under irrigation.
The NCP also believes Mr Chavan has not been supportive enough of senior NCP leader and PWD Minister Chhagan Bhujbal, who faces accusations that his family members benefitted from inflated costs in a project to refurbish the Maharashtra Sadan in Delhi.
Ajit Pawar made an open counter-attack on Mr Chavan last week, saying the Urban Development Department, which is under the CM, had under-utilised funds allocated to it.
The NCP has demanded that a coordination committee be resurrected to ensure better government processes in Maharashtra. Senior party leader Praful Patel said yesterday, "The NCP has a vision but it finds no direction in the UPA and nothing is happening. Ministers say there is no coordination in the state government. There was a coordination committee earlier, but meetings don't take place anymore."
It has been a two-pronged attack. While leaders in the state hit out at Mr Chavan, in New Delhi, Mr Pawar and Mr Patel stayed away from a Cabinet meeting on Thursday last, immediately after voting for the Presidential elections ended. By Friday, the NCP had given the Congress notice.
Sharad Pawar, before leaving for Mumbai for the weekend said in his letter to the PM and Mrs Gandhi, "We are a small party. So it doesn't confer stature or respectability. So we need to build up our party for the future. Therefore we need to devote more time to build up our party." Mr Patel said in Delhi that while the NCP had been an exemplary ally in its support to the UPA, it often found itself not consulted on key issues. He scoffed at speculation that the real reason Mr Pawar was upset was because he had not been given the position of number 2 in the government - Defence Minister AK Antony has been seated next to the PM at Cabinet meetings and not Mr Pawar.
In New Delhi, the Congress' top leadership has been making efforts to ensure a reconciliation with the NCP. The party's core committee, which met on Friday, reportedly discussed the issue.