A speech in the rain, a night of long knives, unlikely friends and heartbreak hotels. In every episode of the drama that led up to the Maha Vikas Aghadi government, on every step outmanoeuvring the BJP, behind every stitch sewing up the Sena-NCP-Cong alliance, lay the calm hand and calculating head of Sharad Pawar. The Indian Express interviews the NCP chief on the art of making friends, his role, the Maharashtra alliance and what it means for the country.
With coalitions, the question often asked is how long will the arrangement last, especially when the parties have different ideologies. How long will the Maha Vikas Aghadi last?
On many occasions, parties that fought elections against each other, if there is no clarity about the majority after the results, to give stability to the state, they come together. Maybe their ideologies are different, but they can decide on a common minimum programme and, on the basis of that, form the government. Going for polls again is very expensive… Not just in India, in Europe, in Germany, for years together, coalition governments are running. So the idea that different parties cannot work together is not correct.
In 1999, there was no clear-cut majority for any party, but Mr (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee came forward… In his government, there was George Fernandes, Mamata Banerjee, they were all different… He took a decision to keep some of the BJP’s views and programmes aside. Ram Janmabhoomi, he decided not to touch that subject. Mr Vajpayee successfully ran the administration for five years.
In Maharashtra, the Congress and NCP fought against each other but now they are working together. For 15 years, they have provided stability to the state, they have a common minimum programme.
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In the NCP, Shiv Sena, Congress alliance, there was compromise on the word ‘secularism’ in the common minimum programme. How was the Sena persuaded to accept that word?
When a situation comes when there is no choice but to work together, somebody has to make compromises. Compromise was not from the Sena side only, it was from the NCP and Congress side too. The Congress insisted on secularism and ultimately the Sena accepted it. Why? Because of these four sentences (opening a copy of the Constitution to the Preamble page)… Any government will obviously respect the Constitution. And they said yes, they respect the Constitution, and will form the government on the basis of the Constitution. Other than the Constitution, why ask for something? Why unnecessarily create misunderstandings in their rank and file?
Initially we thought the government should be led by both parties, two-and-a-half years each. But the Sena insisted on five years. So we said alright, you run. The compromise from our side was this.
You saw the Sena during the 1993 Mumbai riots (when its leaders were accused of instigating violence and Pawar was the CM). How difficult was it for you to join hands with it?
When you run a coalition government… one has to forget other things. In fact, when we work together, it is a sort of guarantee to various sections that nothing will happen. When parties with different stands on certain issues come together… and give confidence to the public at large that we are ready to work together in the larger interest of society, that sends a signal to various cross-sections of society – that it is a good thing. It’s happened previously also. In 1978, I ran a coalition government — I was a Congressman — there was the Janata Party, it consisted of the Jan Sangh and Samyukta Socialist party, there was support from Leftist parties, Peasants and Workers Party, and Republican Party of India.
Do you see a Hinduisation of India?
No, no, I don’t agree we are living in a Hindu Rashtra. We respect each other’s religions, it’s a personal matter. I have full faith on Hinduism, I do go to the mandir. But in public life, I belong to all.
How do you see the Central government’s moves such as bringing in the Citizenship Amendment Bill or promising a nation-wide National Register of Citizens?
Now that you mention Citizenship Bill, my party is not favourable to the government’s decision. Just isolating one section of society is not fair, it is not done, it is not doing justice to all cross-sections of society. We do not support it.
In the days leading up to the alliance, you persuaded Congress president Sonia Gandhi about going with the Sena. What is your sense of where Rahul Gandhi stands on the alliance?
I don’t know, I haven’t discussed it with him. I have not met him for two-three months.
Do you believe Rahul’s views are important for this alliance?
He was not here, he was not available. That’s why I don’t want to pass any comment.
The alliance discussions were entirely carried out by the seniors — whether it was the Congress’s Mallikarjun Kharge or Ahmed Patel, or you for the NCP. Does it mean no next-generation leaders could have seen this alliance through?
What you are saying is partly correct. The seniors discussed the matter. However, the real (push) was by Maharashtra’s Congress Legislative Party that is dominated by youngsters, more than 70 per cent. They insisted on this alliance. The feeling that we have to come together was there in the younger leadership of the Congress, NCP, and Sena. They might have discussed with us, the seniors, but this alliance was on their insistence.
As someone who has spent most of his political life in the Congress, and continues to work closely with it, where do you see the party headed?
The Congress has joined (an alliance) here, that is a good sign. It shows the Congress is also taking pragmatic decisions. If the country requires, all like-minded parties can come together, and the Congress is also coming… It is a welcome change.
But what about the Congress’s leadership problems?
How can I comment on another political party? I can understand that on certain issues there may be a difference in views. But how to run the party, that is their thing.
There have been suggestions that the NCP should merge with the Congress.
Why should we merge with the Congress? You may think so, but the NCP does not think so. We are a political party with our own programme and we would like to continue with it. And if this is the thinking of the rank-and-file of my party, it is my responsibility to protect their interests.
The BJP says it is here to stay for a hundred years.
In 2004 too they were saying this… that, for 20 years, there will be only BJP, BJP, BJP. But the Manmohan Singh government came and lasted for 10 years.
Is the alliance in Maharashtra a sign of what the Opposition can do to stop it?
Ultimately, the Opposition has to work together, agree on a programme to provide a viable alternative… In many states, for instance Kerala, different parties have worked together for years. My party is a member (of the ruling coalition) there…
In the Maharashtra elections, the Congress seemed to have thrown in the towel even before the campaign began, while in the NCP, you were the only one leading the fight, with the party demoralised by defections. Given that the two parties performed better than expected, what lessons are to be drawn about campaigning, candidate selection?
Some of my senior colleagues, who had enjoyed power for many years, deserted me. In such a situation, the challenge was to build a new, younger leadership. Thousands and thousands of youngsters were ready to work… the field was (now) open for them. And to prove that they meant business, they worked hard. It was my duty to motivate them, (convince) the public that these youngsters can deliver.
One moment considered a turning point was you addressing an election rally in Satara in pouring rain. Do you agree?
The Satara meeting definitely got people excited… But, even when I started the campaign — my first meetings were in Nashik and Solapur — everywhere I saw, youngsters, men and women… it was giving me confirmation. You talked about that meeting in the rain… three weeks prior to that, a hundred thousand people came to a party procession during a nomination in Satara, at least 70 per cent were youngsters. So the mood of the state was favourable.
Do you think the mood was against the Devendra Fadnavis government in the state, or the Narendra Modi government at the Centre?
There were two-three things. Unhappiness about the Fadnavis government was there. Simultaneously, there was anger at those who deserted me after sitting with me in various positions for years together.
It was said they were pressured to leave because of the cases against them.
There were cases against some, not everyone. Yes, the ED (Enforcement Directorate) was used, the CBI was used, but (to join the BJP) was a conscious decision by the leaders.
Even during Congress rule, central agencies were used against Opposition politicians.
No. The use of the ED, CBI, we have not seen before in Maharashtra. Might have been in some other states… We are all seeing misuse of authority. One day they may take action against me, whether there is a reason or not… anybody who takes a different view against the establishment… I am not saying something will happen. With P Chidambaram (we saw this), but generally, I cannot say. That is the impression among the Opposition.
Does that create a climate of fear, impede the functioning of the Opposition?
We have decided to work in a particular direction, with a particular ideology, and there is the other side and ideology. If they are not following the democratic way, they are misusing authority, the Opposition has to face it.
The ED called you for questioning too. By landing up at its office, you turned it into a political advantage.
It was a bank case (Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank), I am not a member of that bank, I am not its director, I do not have any association with it, I have no account there. When I saw I was named, it was my duty to fight. It was not a political move, it was a decision to take a courageous stand against those misusing political authority.
You are seen as a consummate politician, a shrewd tactician. It is said this is your biggest strength, but also your biggest weakness. Through the whole government formation drama, people said you can’t be trusted, that you had tied up with the BJP, that the rest was a cover, that you were in the know about Ajit Pawar joining hands with Fadnavis.
There is a certain section, particularly in the media, they enjoy this. If what you say was correct, how did Mr Uddhav Thackeray become the CM? How has my party supported him and joined the government?
In public life, I may belong to an ideologically different party, that does not mean we are each other’s enemies. Ideologically, we will fight, in other ways we will fight, but personally, I never misbehave with anyone, whether from the BJP or any other party. On many occasions, during elections 20 years, 40 years ago, my opponent and I would be attacking each other, and at the end of the day, go to each other’s house for dinner… Sometimes people are not able to digest this.
One thing that was talked about was your meeting with the PM.
So, what is wrong (in that)?
The meeting came at a delicate time in the negotiations for alliance formation. You must have known it would send out wrong signals.
If anyone thinks (that), let them worry, it is not my headache. My personal equation with the Prime Minister is good. When I was in the Central government, he was the CM (of Gujarat). The Central government was not happy with him at that time too. I was visiting that state as Minister of Agriculture… If you are in charge of the fields, it is my duty to go to you, take your support. From that angle, I visited that state on many occasions, along with Mr Modiji. Not a single Congress minister (approved of) this. In government, you cannot behave like this. Now, when he became the Prime Minister, one morning he said, ‘You are doing good work in water conservation and agriculture and I would like to come and see you’. I said, come. He visited my constituency, visited my place, saw the various development activities, and had good words to say. But, at the same time, during the elections, he visited the same place and attacked me. I have no misunderstanding because his job was to attack me. As a party leader, he took this stand. But as a Prime Minister and an administrator, when he sees something good happening, he does not hesitate to say so. We have to differentiate between the two things.
Some said your meeting with the PM was meant to put pressure on the Congress, to accept the alliance with the Sena.
Why?… Prior to my meeting, the Congress Legislative Party had agreed to support the alliance. The Congress was ready.
So there was no agenda behind the meeting?
The agenda was to invite him to an international sugarcane conference. But when political leaders sit, they do discuss other things.
Which is when — according to you — Modi said you should work with the BJP.
I am very unhappy that The Indian Express said I ‘rejected’ (it). That is a very harsh word. In fact, I said that he (Modi) suggested if it was possible to have second thoughts, to rethink. So I said it was a conscious decision of my colleagues and mine (to form the alliance with the Sena and Congress)… ‘Rejected’ shows arrogance. That is not my habit. Why should I reject the Prime Minister of India? Ultimately, one has to show respect to the institution. The Prime Minister is an institution.
What did he say to you?
His suggestion… was to see if it is possible (for the NCP to work with the BJP). When I said it is not possible, he said is it not possible to give it a second thought? I said my colleagues and I had decided, and we will follow that decision.
Did the PM offer a ministry at the Centre to Supriya Sule?
No, no. He has been saying for the last five years that she is a good parliamentarian, should not ‘waste time with you’ — jokingly, not in a harsh way. So that day he said, why is she wasting her time, her services can be utilised at the national level.
It was very unlike you to have made this conversation public.
Why not? We were not discussing any government secrets. It was not a confidential discussion.
You have known Modi for a long time. What do you see as the reason for his continuing appeal, despite mistakes on the economic front, and the BJP’s failure to get a majority in Maharashtra, where he campaigned extensively?
He is THE (emphasis Pawar’s) top leader of his party. He also heads the government. He has certain views to which we don’t subscribe, we criticise him too. But after taking so many unpopular decisions, why don’t people take a different stand vis-a-vis him?… So, public does expect an alternative. Has anybody succeeded in providing confidence to the public that he can provide the alternative?
Whose fault is that?
We all in the Opposition, I accept that. Unless and until somebody creates confidence in the minds of the public that ‘A’ is wrong, that I, ‘B’, can be the reply to ‘A’, and can deliver the goods, I am committed to it, and I enjoy mass support… people do think about the nation.
So what should the Opposition be doing?
We have to work together, we have to fight. And if there is an effort in that direction, it is my duty to associate with it.
What is Ajit Pawar’s role going to be in the party and the government?
In the government, I can’t say. In the party, definitely, we are working together.
Sometime ago, it was taken for granted that he would inherit the leadership of the NCP from you.
Ultimately, it is the party rank-and-file that will decide. By the way, my health is good (laughs).
Now it is believed your daughter Sule is a serious contender for that position.
I don’t know about that. You ask her. Her thinking is different — to be a good parliamentarian, work at the national level.
What role do you see for yourself in the alliance? Has the remote control of the Maharashtra government moved from Mumbai to Baramati?
There is nothing like that. The state government is being run under the leadership of Mr Uddhav Thackeray. He has the last word on administrative matters. In fact, I have made it clear that we will not associate with the decision-making process, that is the prerogative of the chief minister and his team. If he asks me for advice, then only will we offer.
Politically, what will be your role?
My role is to travel in my home state, build up my party… Governance is the job of these people. My job is to build a new leadership that can protect the interests of the public for the next 30-40 years.
One of the first decisions of the new government was to review the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project. At a time when the country is seeking investors, is this prudent?
I have read in the papers that the government has decided to go in-depth into that decision, and then take a view. There were write-ups in the media previously that between Ahmedabad and Mumbai, there are so many other means of transport, that this presented huge financial (cost)… Secondly, the priority of the state government today is irrigation, water. In the country as a whole, average agriculture irrigation percentage is around 40 per cent; in Maharashtra, it is 18-19 per cent… The cost-benefit ratio, social impact have to be studied.
Onion prices have shot up. What is the state government doing about this?
Three-four months ago, farmers were dumping onions on the streets. The Centre did not provide a better price then. The next crop, the farmer decided to shift from onion. Now we are importing from Turkey. This was definitely a mistake by the Government of India. I wrote letters three months ago to the government, warning this would happen.