Home > Assembly Elections 2004 >
October 05, 2004
Vilasrao Dadoji Deshmukh has been one of the senior leaders of the Congress in Maharashtra for close to 15 years now. A protege of the late Shankarrao Chavan, who was the first Marathwada politician to become chief minister of the state, Deshmukh realised a long-stated ambition when Congress president Sonia Gandhi chose him to lead the Democratic Front coalition government in the state five years ago. A little over three years later, Deshmukh fell victim to the squabbles within the coalition and was forced to relinquish the post to close friend and party colleague Sushilkumar Shinde.
But this did not mean Deshmukh was out of the leadership's favour. He handled the party's affairs in Chhattisgarh in the run-up to the assembly election there last December, and is now the Congress general secretary in charge of Karnataka, where he helped to form a coalition government with one-time sworn rivals, the Janata Dal-Secular, after the May assembly election.
Deputy Managing Editor Rajeev D Pai caught up with the plain-speaking former chief minister at his elegantly furnished sixth-floor flat near the Worli Sea Face in central Mumbai last week, just before he was to leave for a couple of campaign meetings in Thane district. Excerpts from the interview:
You must be happy that the alliance with the NCP has come through, but I am sure you are not happy that the Congress is contesting the lowest ever number of seats in Maharashtra.
Yeah, for the first time in the history of Maharashtra we have gone into a bigger alliance. Naturally, our own people are not happy that they missed the bus. But we had to make certain compromises. At the Centre we are in alliance. Here also we ran the government for the last five years in alliance. So the natural course is that we should not fight on the streets. Public perception is very important. You are in power, you are sharing power for the last five years, and now you are fighting on the streets? What message will go to the people?
But there is some rebellion…
From both sides there is rebellion.
To what extent do you think this will affect the results?
It all depends how they [the rebels] take up their campaign, what's the kind of response they get.
Even a senior leader like Prataprao Bhosale has quit the party.
When I was appointed in-charge of Western Maharashtra – Solapur, Satara, Sangli, and Kolhapur – I made a statement that let there be 'friendly fights' in those areas, because there is no existence of the BJP and Sena in that region. Congress and NCP are fighting against each other in every election, right from gram panchayat to societies to zilla parishad. So it would be more natural if you allow these two parties to fight against each other and have an alliance in other parts of the state. Where Sena-BJP is stronger, there we can have an alliance.
Here that is not the case. Here they are just waiting for the rebels to join their party. But you must notice that nobody has joined them. They are forming their own separate groups, but they have not taken their symbol. They are not willing to take their symbol because they know that the people will not support.
In Satara [the district Bhosale hails from] there are 10 assembly seats. The last time we won only one seat. So nine MLAs are from NCP. So there was no question of getting any one seat from their quota. So naturally what will people do now? There won't be any Congress presence left. That was the fear in their minds. So they all resigned and formed their own group. That is, I think, a natural reaction.
But ultimately it may end up harming your alliance. Or are you confident that after they get elected they will come back to the party?
The point is that it is going to be a friendly fight. They have not got the official symbol, but that will be a friendly fight. Anyone who wins, he will be helping the [Democratic] Front. They are not going to join the Sena-BJP. Otherwise they would have taken their symbol. They have not even asked for their support. That is the reality in that region.
For the first time there has been rebellion in the Sena-BJP ranks also. Normally they are a very disciplined group.
Rebellion has become a common feature now. As far as the Congress is concerned, it's not new. We are used to this kind of a situation. For them this is the first time that somebody has taken a…
Defied Balasaheb Thackeray?
Ah! They must be more worried about that.
You think that will help the DF alliance?
Yeah, because wherever they are strong, their split will naturally help the Congress candidate, or our alliance candidate.
Recently, the Karnataka government revived an old controversy and arrested Uma Bharti. Then she took out a yatra that passed through parts of Maharashtra. What sort of impact do you think that would have had?
Absolutely nothing. No impact.
But it just gave an issue to the BJP.
That issue has nothing to do with the election. They also say that it is a national issue, not an election issue. Even their president [M Venkaiah Naidu] has said that. These are not the election issues. These are the national issues. What kind of impact are they going to get out of that? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
I mean, so far as Tiranga (Tricolour) is concerned, Congress party has always respected the Tiranga. They have laid down their lives taking that flag on their shoulders. So they should not teach us what is the importance of Tiranga. We do not need to take lessons from Uma Bharti.
In the Lok Sabha election in May, the BSP made a major impact in the Vidarbha region. They didn't win any seats, but they helped to bring down a lot of Congress-NCP candidates. What sort of impact do you think...
No, my assessment is quite different. There were some problems within our alliance while distributing the tickets, while sharing the seats...
For the Lok Sabha?
For the Lok Sabha. And because of that some communities were not given proper representation. Generally we do give representation. But because of this seat-sharing, we could not do that. So, there were rebels from our own party. They belonged to a particular community. So those votes, the community votes, as well as few votes from the scheduled castes, the percentage went up. She may claim on the record, but the inside story is different. And now all those who contested for Lok Sabha on BSP tickets, they all joined Congress. All! Those who won 60,000 votes, 50,000 votes, 1 lakh, all are back in the Congress. So there is no flow going to the BSP and getting those tickets.
So you don't see them having any impact.
[Dismissively] I don't think so.
But the RPI has definitely lost ground in the state.
That is only because of their factions. They are divided into many groups.
So how much longer do you think it will make sense for the Congress-NCP to keep having an alliance with the RPI?
I'll tell you what happens. RPI, people may not know which group they belong to. These groups are limited to their workers. They do not [extend] to the voters. But the message which we send by having an alliance with the RPI is that the backward classes are with us. For that we have to give away few seats here and there, but that doesn't matter because in all other constituencies they do help.
The Congress-NCP government has completed five years in the state. What is the message that you will be going out with on the campaign trail?
See, the main thing would be development, the benefits given to the farmers, labourers, backward classes, adivasis, OBCs. There are hundreds of decisions which we took in the last five years, three and a half years in my tenure, then subsequently Mr Sushilkumar Shinde also carried forward the same policies which were according to the common minimum programme.
By and large people are not unhappy with the performance of this government. Even the opposition could not get any issue. They are issue-less today. They should have come out very openly against the government. There is no agitation, there is no discontent. They are trying to create some issues, but basically if they don't have the issues...how can they pick up the campaign?
But overall how do you see the development of the state? Do you think it has moved forward in the last five years?
Of course it has moved forward though there were financial constraints. There were lots of loans on our head. Though the burden of the loans was quite steep, still we could manage. Especially irrigation, road construction, housing programmes, which we have taken up in a very big way. Of course industrial development is always there because Maharashtra is number 1, so naturally all investors are willing to come to Maharashtra.
On the law and order situation we have done well. They may claim that there were certain communal riots here and there. Okay, communal riots were there, but we got immediate control over the situation. Not like Gujarat, which went on for a month. And even today the situation is so bad that hearings cannot be conducted in Gujarat. Court had to say that it should be conducted in Maharashtra. I think that is the best certificate for the law and order situation of Maharashtra. The court feels that here is a state where we can provide all kinds of security and free and fair hearing.
You mentioned finances. The state's debt burden has almost doubled from what it was when the Congress-NCP took over. But even now, both sides, the Sena-BJP and Congress-NCP, are making a lot of populist promises. How far do you think this is justified? How can you implement these promises like free power?
Why do people tend to make these kind of promises? There is no code of conduct within the different political parties. Certain issues one has to understand. If you are saying something, then why should we lag behind? It is a competition. Unless and until we get ourselves elected... you can be the best administrator, but government is not a corporate house. We have to have a popular vote. And for getting the popular vote sometimes we have to make some compromises.
But how far is this implementable, like free power for farmers?
See, free power, this experiment which we did in Punjab and now in Andhra, it has its own implications. But that can be sorted out. But today what is the popular demand? Both the parties have now promised. They have promised, and we have already committed ourselves. We have gone one step ahead. So on that count we will not allow our opposition to score, let us be very frank on this issue.
The farmers' society is facing a major problem. We have to go to its deep roots, what are the causes, why they tend to commit suicide, what are the circumstances that compel them to take this extreme step, that one has to study carefully. And then, when we study, we find that he has some financial problems because of this drought, because of other various reasons, because of the rate of interest which he has to pay on agricultural loans, so these are the various issues one has to understand and see that his burden is eased. Somebody has to share that burden. And who is 'somebody'? That is the government.
But free power is the solution?
No, one of the solutions, it is not the sole solution. We are giving a loan at a very minimum rate of interest. Ultimately he [a farmer] gets at 13, 14 per cent. Every bank will add its own interest. [The cooperative] society will add something more. Suppose we get 6-8 per cent from NABARD, when it reaches the farmer it becomes 14, 15 per cent. So that aspect one has to understand properly and see that cheaper loan reaches the farmer.
These are the steps, which may ultimately help the farmer. Not that we have studied the whole thing, but these are the two things, at least give some kind of sympathy, yes government is coming forward with certain concessions to the farmers. He is leading such a miserable life in the fields, we may not understand his problems sitting in Mantralaya or the district headquarters.
Yeah, but you people have your own contacts with the farmer community. Lot of MLAs are actually coming from a farming background. So they should have a better understanding of their problems.
That's true, but this is a common phenomenon. You find it in Karnataka, in Maharashtra, so one has to have an in-depth study.
So if the Congress-NCP comes back to power, will you set up such an in-depth study?
Definitely. We would like to take help from the NGOs because our officers will go and ask their old, stereotyped questions. That's my personal view, we may request the new government also, you please appoint, get the in-depth study, what are the reasons, why they tend to take this extreme step? Unless and until we find out the solution this will not happen. Otherwise then government is responsible. For everything that is happening in the state, it is government [that is held responsible]. Nobody knew what is happening in his house, what are his personal problems. Is it because of the government decisions or policies? Or there are other reasons to compel him to commit suicide? But whatever has happened, opposition levels charges against the government. 'In your tenure, 500 farmers have committed suicide.' So, are we really responsible for that? That has to be properly studied.
We don't deny it today. For any state, it is not good that its farmers are committing suicide. It is not giving any credit to the government, it is always giving discredit. We feel, we do have sympathy towards their problems, but let us study what are the reasons and find out the solutions, give them a package, so that tomorrow they may not tend to take this extreme step.
And what sort of impact do you think this separate Vidarbha demand...
Nil, nil, nil.
Because Ranjeet Deshmukh also raised that demand recently. Of course, now he's got a ticket...
This demand is limited to the leaders. Common masses are not interested. They are interested in their own development. They don't see that this is the only option. There are various options.
It is true that it is a backward area. I belong to Marathwada. This is also a backward region. Then tomorrow Marathwada people will ask for a separate state. Then Konkan will ask for a separate state. Is it the solution to this issue?
What is the solution then?
We have to pay more attention. We have to make more funds available.
But they feel that power is always concentrated in Western Maharashtra.
Who feels? That is not the fact. It depends upon the leader. Powers were there with Vidarbha. Eleven years Vasantrao Naik was the chief minister. Sudhakarrao Naik became chief minister. [M S] Kannamwar became chief minister. It is not that they have not got proper share in power. Important portfolios were with them. It varies from person to person.
Even Marathwada is backward. Even today we don't have water. But we don't go to this extreme demand, saying let Marathwada be a separate state. How can we survive? Without Bombay? The money-generating machine is here. If we lose Bombay, then what are we going to get from Vidarbha alone?
The last time we met you had mentioned that the NCP should make its stand on Sonia Gandhi clear...
Yeah, now they have made it clear.
Have they? Two days earlier Sharad Pawar said that if Sonia became PM he would not have joined the Cabinet.
So is it clear now? He keeps changing his stand.
Starting troubles are there always [laughs]. But they will fall in line now. They will fall in line. Ultimately if there is no issue this is the time they should merge with the Congress. Why should they have a separate entity now as our leader Mrs Sonia Gandhi has denied this position? She said that no, I don't want to become the prime minister. So now where is the question? They had made their separate party on this issue only. But she has herself sacrificed and said no, I am not interested. So there is no reason to keep your identity now.
Do you think a move towards merger will happen after the election?
It should happen! I have given a call long back, immediately after the [Lok Sabha election] results. Now this is the time.
After Vasantrao Naik, you were Maharashtra's longest serving chief minister. Are you going to be an aspirant again after the election?
In our party, we don't decide. It is the high command who decides. Whatever responsibility they entrust me with, I will abide by the decision of the high command.
But what do you think are your chances?
In politics, we should not guess. We should only leave it to the… [pauses awhile] high command.
And how do you see your successor Mr Shinde's performance? He has been under a lot of pressure.
Pressure, his nature, it makes a difference, no? He is always very humble, noble, compromising. He is my best friend, so I know his nature. So in the given situation he delivered. Specially the budget which he presented, the last two budgets.
When we met him some time ago, he admitted that he would have preferred to lead a single-party government rather than an alliance.
Anybody would do that. There are so many limitations, many compromises one has to make. You cannot have your own decision all the time, always a consensus to be created on any particular decision. There are many hurdles. But now as this coalition culture has emerged, at the Centre, at the state level, we have to live with it. There is no option. One-party rule, now it becomes a dream! As of today; nobody knows tomorrow what happens.
Even in Karnataka, you had to go and form an alliance...
Yeah, I am in-charge there, so I really taught them what is this Maharashtra formula [laughs]. But they are also finding it very difficult. But fortunately there are only two parties. Here I was running a coalition of eight political parties. There at least it's two parties – Janata Dal and Congress. There are no splinter groups, or independents.
The Lok Sabha election in Bombay threw up a surprise result. The Shiv Sena-BJP got just one seat out of six. What impact is that going to have on the assembly election?
I think within two months, three months it is very difficult to change that impact. Similar sort of results will be there. And Bombay will decide who is to lead the next government. Not who is the chief minister, but who is to lead the government.
You mean whether it is the Congress or the NCP?
No, no, Bombay is the balancing city. Any political party gets 20 seats out of Bombay, they will be leading the state. That is my assessment.
So then it has to be either the Congress or the Shiv Sena.
Of course. We are going neck and neck. Not that they are very much comfortable, or we are very much comfortable. We are close.
And overall in the state, what is your prediction, or hope?
Prediction is that we will be comfortable in Western Maharashtra. Vidarbha and Marathwada we will find it difficult. Konkan also we will find it difficult. But we will be more comfortable in Western Maharashtra. We will be getting maximum seats from that pocket.
But Marathwada and Vidarbha will be 50-50?
Earlier, Vidarbha was a Congress bastion. But somehow in the last Lok Sabha election, we could not do well.
But with all those people coming back, don't you think it will make a difference?
It will make some difference. But I don't think it will be that much, may not be in a position to get our hold back. That may be difficult. That is my assessment. So far as Shiv Sena is concerned, they openly opposed a separate Vidarbha. Still they got four MPs [from the region]. What does it mean? That movement is not at all there in the minds of the people. That is another indication.