Prithiviraj Chavan’s voice is hoarse, and a local doctor prescribes antibiotics, anti-allergy tablets and an antiseptic gargle at around midnight on Tuesday, a night before Maharashtra goes to polls. Dishevelled in appearance and physically fatigued, the former Chief Minister draws comfort and satisfaction from the fact that he is finally back home — Karad (South), a constituency he hopes to regain after losing the Lok Sabha elections from the region 15 years ago.
Chosen over other Congress stalwarts for his honest image, after the Adarsh controversy cost Ashok Chavan the chief ministership in November 2010, Chavan is more dejected than disillusioned. Having led a “difficult, if not impossible” Congress-NCP alliance for 46 months (November 11, 2010 to September 26, 2014), he tells The Indian Express, “I can say that my urban development department follows rule-based governance.” He isn’t sure about the other departments and ministries, particularly those held by the NCP.
“I don’t want to go on about NCP,” he says, referring to his campaign speeches in which he did not spare his deputy in the government, Ajit Pawar, over corruption and irregularities in irrigation projects. “The NCP hates me. Ajit Pawar blames me for blowing the lid off the irrigation scam. That’s why they put up impossible conditions. Ajit Pawar is ambitious and was desperate to be the CM. That’s why the alliance broke,” he says, adding that it was Sharad Pawar’s ambition to be the Prime Minister that led to a split in the Congress, resulting in the creation of NCP.
In running such a coalition, “the price paid was too huge”, says Chavan. To illustrate his point, he refers to a water transport project in which the MSRDC (a department which was with the NCP) sought 50 per cent funding from the state government and 50 per cent from CIDCO, which came under the urban development department held by the Chief Minister himself. “I denied this, leading to a lot of acrimony,” he says.
While many accused Chavan of being tolerant of corruption, he takes refuge in alliance dharma. “There was huge political pressure to regularise illegal construction. Every little thing is so sensitive with the alliance partner. When Ajit Pawar quit, I did not call him back. He returned on his own. Coalition politics is so delicate. People can always say I should have resigned. But I saved the government,” he says.
Asked if the Congress leadership was keen to continue with the alliance, he says, “Rahul Gandhi was not in favour. They left it to the state leadership finally.”
Going back to the time when he was chosen as the party’s face in Maharashtra, Chavan says, “I had a clear mandate to stabilise the state Congress and the government. There was lack of confidence on the back of corruption charges. The Burari session of the Congress party (December 2010) was called in this background. Rightly, the focus was on corruption and giving up discretionary powers. Things were collapsing.”
In setting things right, many infrastructure projects got stuck, he admits. Hardly any new projects were announced or launched. “But I had to relocate 40,000 people. I went ahead with the Mihan project. Many overbridges were launched by me. We also went ahead with the Rs 23,000 crore Metro 3 line, the Shivaji Memorial, Nagpur and Pune metros,” he says. Many of these, however, came towards the end of his tenure.
Chavan blames the Centre for some projects not taking off. For instance, the ambitious coastal road project for north-south connectivity hit an environmental roadblock, he says. “We could have done it if some relaxation was allowed in reclamation. We needed some rethinking in Delhi, perhaps a closer interface,” he says. It was also unfortunate that the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link project did not find any bidders. “The economic conditions were bad. We got only one bidder,” he says.
While he admits that many in the party may target him, depending on the outcome of the Assembly elections on October 19, Chavan is unlikely to lose much sleep. “I don’t have a problem with sleep,” he tells the doctor. He is a habitual late sleeper, pushing himself into the early hours. For his party, he has a line: “It cannot be business as usual, which it is now.”