Just days ahead of the AICC session on January 17, where the Congress is expected to make its stand clear on party vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s candidature as its prime ministerial candidate, Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde on Saturday was quoted as saying that he would be “happy” to see NCP president Sharad Pawar as the Prime Minister.
“I would be happy if Sharad Pawar becomes the Prime Minister. He is my political guru, I must admit I entered politics because of Sharad Pawar. He brought me to politics in Maharashtra,” Shinde was quoted as saying at an interaction with the media in his constituency, Solapur, in western Maharashtra.
“Everyone has ambition. He has been trying (to become the Prime Minister) since 1992… I believe Pawar has been a victim of Delhi politics… There is no reason for harbouring two views about my support to Pawar as Prime Minister. I have said this many times, even on the national platform,” he was quoted as saying.
When contacted by The Sunday Express, Shinde did not deny the remarks, but claimed that he was quoted out of context. “My support to Pawar as Prime Minister was in response to questions asked by mediapersons. It was not as if I was pitching Pawar’s candidature. It should be seen in the right perspective and not projected wrongly,” he said. “My support will always be for Rahul Gandhi as Prime Minister,” he said, asserting his loyalty to party president Sonia Gandhi and Rahul.
In Delhi, AICC general secretary in charge of Maharashtra Mohan Prakash refused to comment, saying he was unaware of the context in which Shinde made the observations. Party spokesperson Meem Afzal claimed Shinde had already denied the remarks, and hence he had nothing to add.
But a senior Congress minister in Maharashtra said, “It does not augur well for the party which is pitching Rahul Gandhi for the post”. Some Maharashtra PCC leaders indicated a “ploy” to streamline the party’s strained relationship with the NCP. “Shinde is a seasoned Congress leader. He would never make a mistake. There is a definite ploy,” said a party leader.
“Shinde’s support to Pawar has a hidden political agenda — to mend fences with the NCP in his own constituency,” said a senior AICC leader.
The NCP, meanwhile, said Pawar was not in the race for the top job. “We all know Sharad Pawar is the most capable leader to become the Prime Minister. But he is not in the race. The NCP understands its political limitations. The party contests limited seats in the Lok Sabha which makes it difficult to stake claim for the top post. The arithmetic is not in our favour,” said party chief spokesperson Nawab Malik.
“Shinde’s statement is his personal view. What he meant was that if Pawar becomes the Prime Minister, he would have liked it as he is a leader from Maharashtra. But he also indicated that he would like to go by the party’s decision,” said MPCC spokesperson Ratnakar Mahajan.
“Shinde’s open support to Pawar as PM is to ensure NCP helps him in Solapur. The 2014 Lok Sabha elections will be crucial for Shinde as he faces unrest from farmers in the region,” said another MPCC leader. The NCP is known to have some strongholds in his Solapur Lok Sabha seat.
“Moreover, the AICC is already exploring the possibility of picking Shinde as one of the probable candidates for the top post in order to consolidate the Dalit vote bank in its favour. Even if it doesn’t declare Shinde as the candidate, it wants to use his No. 2 position at the Centre to retain its Dalit vote bank,” he added.
”Shinde has supported Pawar’s candidature as Prime Minister. It was shown on television channels, so how can we deny what appears in public. Moreover, he has spoken extensively on Pawar and not just made a passing remark. However, we don’t doubt Shinde’s loyalty to Rahul’s leadership,” said another state Congress leader.
Shinde and Pawar are known to share a close friendship. During the 2009 Maharashtra Assembly elections, Pawar and his daughter Supriya Sule launched the campaign of Shinde’s daughter, Pranati, in Solapur Assembly constituency. Pawar also campaigned for Shinde during the Lok Sabha elections.
“Pawar and Shinde have always been friendly despite the Congress and NCP often being at loggerheads,” said a senior NCP leader.
Meanwhile, the BJP said Shinde’s remarks showed the Congress has accepted that Manmohan Singh’s successor will not be from the party. “In a way, Shinde has already conceded that no Congress leader will be the next Prime Minister. He may daydream about who should be the Prime Minister, but the people have already reposed their faith in Narendra Modi’s leadership,” said BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar.
— with inputs from Delhi