How Deep is That River
Yes, The River Knows

‘We could have sped up environmental clearances… PM could have stepped in’

In this Idea Exchange moderated by P VAIDYANATHAN IYER, Editor (Mumbai), Chavan advocates prohibiting regional parties from contesting national polls and defends himself against charges of being overcautious on land issues.

Maharashtra Cm Prithviraj chavan. Maharashtra Cm Prithviraj chavan.

Moderated by: P VAIDYANATHAN IYER

He dismisses Narendra Modi’s campaign as a marketing exercise, but Maharashtra CM Prithviraj Chavan admits that there’s a strong challenge posed by the BJP’s presidential-like electioneering. In this Idea Exchange moderated by P VAIDYANATHAN IYER, Editor (Mumbai), Chavan advocates prohibiting regional parties from contesting national polls and defends himself against charges of being overcautious on land issues.

P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: Why should people vote for the Congress-NCP alliance which has not taken care of basic needs like housing for a large section of Mumbai’s common public?

Given the lack of availability of land, Mumbai’s housing challenge is greater than any other city’s in the country. In 1996 (when the Shiv Sena-BJP was in power), the government had promised people they would give them free houses, which incentivised them to come and live in slums. We attempted to rebuild the slums through redevelopment process. The Slum Rehabilitation Authority guidelines were faulty and involved giving a free house to relocate everybody in situ.

Solving such a problem requires a huge political will, because the moment you touch anything like this, it is deemed as anti-poor or anti-slums. What I am trying to do now is bring in transparency and a level playing field, which till now was skewed, and allowing regulatory capture of the system. Secondly, the value that is locked in Mumbai’s land needs to be unlocked and come back into the government’s coffers. We are contemplating a policy wherein the state acts as a developer and takes the excess money that is locked in land and also allows private contractors to build as per a design worked out by the state.

SHUBHANGI KHAPRE: How realistic is the government decision to extend the cut-off date on regularisation of slums?
The January 1, 1995, deadline was due to some poll decision. The government later promised to extend this to January 1, 2000. Instead of getting into whether the date was correct or not, I went by the fact that this was a commitment made by us not once but twice. There are concerns as to whether the move will cause further congestion. I think it won’t. We are trying to convert singlestorey hutments on an extremely costly piece of land into a mutli-storey tower and the land will be free for commercial development.

P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: Many blame you for an overcautious approach on land issues.
The Supreme Court has issued guidelines after the Adarsh incident, wherein it has tied the hands of the government. Secondly, the Congress had given a call to do away with discretion. So, many discretionary land allotments were stopped. Moreover, after the RTI Act, every government official is cautious.

SANDEEP ASHAR: The Congress claims that it has acted against its tainted leaders but gives tickets to the same people.
This is a moral dilemma. Once you perceive a person as guilty, you condemn him forever and don’t give him any recourse in the future. This is not fair. If the person is given a political punishment, it is not fair to condemn him and throw him out of politics. We will have to take a call on whether we want to condemn such people and also make them quit politics.

ZEESHAN SHaIKH: Isn’t it worrying that no new infrastructure project has taken off in the state since 2009?
Development of Mumbai is not comparable with any other place. The infrastructure that has come up here over the past few years, including monorail, Metro, expressway, is unprecedented. Undertaking any major transport project in a city like Mumbai is a daunting task. Moreover, most projects are embroiled in environmental laws.

ZEESHAN SHAIKH: What is more difficult — being a chief minister or dealing with allies?
Fractured polity is a reality both in Delhi and here. Building consensus and taking major political decisions is not easy. In Delhi, there is a large party occupying 206 seats (Congress) with smaller coalition partners. In Maharashtra, we have an alliance of two almost equally sized parties. There are pulls and pressures of building consensus and sharing a vision. It takes time. I was initially accused of holding a lot of meetings without any decision coming out of them. While it takes just three seconds to clear an individual file for change of zone or grant of FSI, complicated files involving infrastructure projects require a lot of effort at the official and political levels.

SHUBHANGI KHAPRE: What is your assessment of the Narendra Modi factor this election?
How people respond to his marketing and advertisement push is one thing. What I’m dismayed at is the vision of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. His entire speech-making has been negative with personal attacks on leaders and spiteful jokes. I have never seen a PM candidate stoop so low. His speeches have said nothing constructive. I would rather hear Narendra Modi spell out his vision on policy initiatives.

SHUBHANGI KHAPRE: What then connects him with people, especially the younger lot?
I do not see any such special connect. The younger generation is impatient, angry about unresolved problems and is always anti-establishment. Earlier, this anger was expressed during coffee meetings. If the younger lot comes out to vote, it will certainly be an anti-establishment vote.

SHUBHANGI KHAPRE: How do you explain the argument that we had one of the finest economists (Manmohan Singh) leading the nation and yet, we are in for such disappointment?
That is unfair. The same economist turned the country around in 1991, and delivered the highest ever decadal growth rate in the history of the nation. We were hit by economic slowdown and issues raised by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, the Central Bureau of Investigation, and those brought out under the Right to Information Act. This has slowed down things. While the first phase of economic reforms in 1991 were what I call low-hanging fruit — easier to take. Look at the song and dance required for a simple but important decision like Foreign Direct Investment in retail now.

MIHIR VASAVDA: Do you think people’s perception of the UPA would have been different had the Prime Minister been more forthcoming or spoken more often?
It would definitely have been useful for the PM to communicate more often. When I was with the PMO, we had advised him to hold a national press conference every three months. He held it once or twice, but then chose not to do so. According to me, that was an error of judgement. The PM’s speaking would have made a difference.

shalini nair: In Sanjaya Baru’s recently published book, you have been accused of planting stories against Sharad Pawar during UPA-I.
I have not read the book. The accusation supposedly levelled against me is silly. I would not have stayed in the PMO for six and a half years had I not enjoyed the PM’s complete trust. I attended Cabinet meetings and briefings. Planting or leaking stories is the last thing I would do. I got to know that there is also a suggestion in the book that the PM asked him to snoop on me. This is absurd. I think he took his title as advisor way too seriously. He was not there for Cabinet meetings or briefings; neither did he attend the PM’s meetings on development agenda. I think a lot of the book is picked up from office gossip.

SANDEEP ASHAR: The book casts aspersions on the role played by the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council (NAC), giving a sense that it functioned as a parallel Cabinet.
This is nonsense. The NAC was constituted consciously. I feel that the next PM should further strengthen its role as the government’s social think tank and its conscience keeper on social issues. It is not right to say that it functioned as a parallel Cabinet.

ZEESHAN SHaIKH: What is your gut feeling regarding Sharad Pawar and the NCP? Do you think that Pawar may jump ship after the elections?
Pawar has always been left of centre. Given this background, it is unthinkable that he would willingly join hands with communal forces. His commitment goes much deeper. But I can’t say the same about other people in the NCP. We will have to wait for election results. People are in politics to be in power.

P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: Do you see him as an ally even when he skips a rally because Sonia wasn’t coming?
I do not read too much into such situations. Everything was planned well for the Mumbai rally and it was only on the morning of April 20 that we got a call saying that Mrs Gandhi was unwell and she would not be able to make it. We were in a dilemma about whether we should cancel the rally, but eventually decided to go ahead with it and requested Delhi to see if some alternative arrangement could be made. We were later informed that Rahul Gandhi had re-arranged his Rae Bareli programme to come to Mumbai. Even before the alternative arrangement was made, I informed Pawar that there was a change and he agreed to come for the rally. During the course of the day, he was informed that Rahul was coming. He took a decision to remain absent. After that there was a statement by the NCP that if there’s a UPA-III government, the Congress had the right to appoint its leader.

SHUBHANGI KHAPRE: Does he feel any kind of discomfort with Rahul’s leadership?
I cannot comment on that.

ZEESHAN SHaIKH: Isn’t it sad that the Congress is relying on the negative vote? What has the state government really done for Muslims?
The fact remains that Modi’s past record worries all of us; it would worry the minority community even more. The fact that he could actually be leading a government at the Centre will worry a lot of people. I feel it is only natural for the minority community to use the best option to ensure that he doesn’t come to power. What the UPA at the Centre and the alliance government in Maharashtra have done for the minority community is something that has never been done before. I do, however, agree that a lot more needs to be done.

MAYURA JANWALKAR: Is there a threat of losing out the traditional Muslim vote to the Aam Aadmi Party?
AAP is not in the picture in Maharashtra. They are like a protest vote that has given an opportunity to people who do not want to vote for a communal party, but are angry with the government. It is like a version of NOTA with a face attached to it.

SMITA NAIR: Don’t you feel that Brand Modi has made a connect with voters in the past month or so?
He has used marketing techniques. It is like marketing a new soap. In marketing, we also know that it all boils down to whether the product is good or not. Modi’s past record does not inspire confidence. He has refrained from spelling out his stand on economy. It is just a product wrapped in a package.

SHAILINI NAIR: Isn’t there something lacking in the Congress’s style of campaigning, apart from your reluctant leadership?
The point is we wanted to keep it away from an American presidential form of election, which the RSS was successful in bringing about. The option of presidential form of democracy was available to us even when our Constitution was being formulated. But we did not choose the model and instead opted for the representative form of democracy. In our campaign, we stressed this point that it wasn’t right to choose a candidate for heading the government. Somehow, that has (become) about reluctant leadership.

ZEESHAN SHaIKH: A party which is uncomfortable with a presidential form of democracy holds primaries to select its candidates.
We are not ready for a presidential form of government. But at the same time, good features of any constitution must be looked at. For instance, there is a constitutional provision in the German law which prohibits regional parties from contesting national polls. We too must go in for this since it is the only way to move towards a two- or three-party system, which is the strength of American democracy.

STUTI SHUKLA: Unless there is a perceived threat of the Modi factor, what do you think is the reason for cohesiveness in the Congress-NCP campaign this elections?
I have already admitted that there is a strong challenge posed by the BJP and communal parties. Perhaps that has helped us come together like never before. While I do not believe in anti-incumbency, I do believe that there is a fatigue with candidates, party’s sloganeering and ideology. There are challenges with the Opposition converting this into a presidential type of election, the perception about UPA-II and the scams that have surfaced, the movement against corruption, among other things.

STUTI SHUKLA: How difficult would it be to retain the six Mumbai seats given the fact that the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, whose rise helped you last time, has lost more than half its appeal?
Almost 55 per cent people in Mumbai live in slums. We have taken some popular decisions like structure protection. Secondly, Mumbai is a cosmopolitan city. There is some appeal of the Shiv Sena and MNS as parties that protects interests of local people. The MNS is still there in half of the seats. They have a secret understanding with the BJP behind the Sena’s back. Any dispute in Opposition will help the ruling party. It helped us last time. It will help us this time too, to a certain extent. But it is not the only reason why we will do well in Mumbai.

SANDEEP ASHAR: What, according to you, is the UPA’s failure?
It is communication. We should have communicated more effectively. Secondly, we could have probably sped up issues involving environment permissions, which perhaps angered the corporate sector. Even the PM could have stepped in to ensure this. For the common man, corruption charges sent wrong signals.

P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: Many in the Congress admit privately about the impact Rahul is making on masses. It is said that he is not able to articulate well and does not know his crowds well. Do you think he can play a role if the Congress comes to power?
If you look at the Mumbai rally, it was larger than Modi’s rally that happened the next day. Even when it was known well in advance that Sonia Gandhi would not be able to make it, we got unprecedented crowds. Rahul is young, sincere, intelligent and is trying to make a difference. Unlike Modi, he has not held any ministerial position to create an impact.

ANANT GOENKA: The three big faces of the Congress — Manmohan Singh, Sonia and Rahul — are media shy. They do not communicate as much as they should.
You are right. We need to look at that. We have not used the media when we should have. But Rahul is making amends, he is giving interviews and meeting editors.

ZEESHAN SHAIKH: Ours is the only democracy where the leader is not campaigning for his party, barring two rallies.

He (Manmohan Singh) has opted out of politics and will not be the PM if the party comes to power. Look at his age. He had offered to leave earlier too. What he has done for the country in 1991 will be remembered.

Transcribed by Zeeshan Shaikh, Sandeep Ashar, Stuti Shukla & Tabassum Barnagarwala

Do you like this story