Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan makes a gallant attempt to deflect accusations against the United Progressive Alliance's record in his freewheeling conversation with Business Standard’s Aditi Phadnis over lunch.
Normally mild-mannered, Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan’s eyes flash as he spears a hapless prawn from his crab salad at Varq, the Taj Mahal hotel’s Indian food restaurant, where we are lunching, writes Aditi Phadnis.
“What is Narendra Modi’s stand on relations with Pakistan? What is his stand on the fiscal deficit? How is he going to control the current account deficit? Get Mukesh Ambani to sell gas cheaper? He is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate: let him spell out how he is going to bring prices down,” he says. “All we’ve been hearing is generalities. Let him spell things out.” It was the turn of the filo pastry to be cut savagely.
“I think his stand on Pakistan is quite clear: in a perfect world, he’d like to bomb it to hell,” I say, not bothering with stuff like accuracy.
“Well, let him say that, then. He should say he will carpet-bomb Pakistan, will nuke it…,” Chavan retorts.
I wonder about the testosterone. He has just come from a meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (with whom he served as minister of state in the PMO till he was elevated to Chief Minister) and Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi. Either he had talked them up or they had talked him up. Either way, Chavan is raring to go.
“It is easy to run a one-party government where you are king. You can take dictatorial decisions, overlook social tensions. But we are yet to hear from Modi how he will do things differently: on economic policy, foreign policy and issues of social justice,” Chavan carries on by way of explanation. “But when you are running a fractious coalition, decision-making is not easy. There are attempts to insult but you have to work on building consensus….”
I listen with mounting interest. Where was this angst coming from? I try a shot in the dark. “The Nationalist Congress Party says you don’t act on anything they say. You don’t take decisions, you don’t decide on policy issues….” Suddenly it was as if I have drawn a curtain on his heavy-lidded eyes. “Something that doesn’t fit in current rules needs to be examined carefully,” he answers evasively. I knew why: the real estate demands of some NCP supporters required that the rules be changed. Chavan was not convinced about this and was taking his time to decide.
I ask if things between the NCP and the Congress are so bad that they would not contest the elections together. “Not at all,” he declares. “In the context of what Sharad Pawar said about not working with Rahul Gandhi?” I persist. “I just want to remind you of what Sharad Pawar said in 2004 about Sonia Gandhi. He has worked with her for the last nine years,” he retorts with evident relish. “UPA [United Progressive Alliance] is the alliance he will be most ready to work with.”
I remind him that Pawar’s party had been represented at the anti-communal convention sponsored and organised by the Left parties, so it wasn’t as if the NCP was short of options -- and they were exploring those options quite publicly despite being in government with the Congress in Maharashtra. “Who can argue with their attendance at a meeting to oppose communalism?” Chavan smilingly counters. “Well, your party didn’t attend it -- does that mean you are not fighting communalism?” I reply. He laughs outright. “We are the vanguard of anti-communalism. We don’t have to prove anything to anyone.”
Chavan is one of the few people in the government who actually becomes quite nostalgic when talking about the first term of the UPA, which was supported by the Left. Although many of the current government’s problems actually began then, he recalls with great affection the Congress-Left cooperation where the Left never asked for anything as crass as ministerships, posts or power and most of the coordination meetings were all about chai-samosa and discussions on such hallowed subjects as the Salva Judum and the ideological and philosophical reasons for and against creating such a force. He said communalism needed to be taken seriously. “We will go into election with the NCP. But we have to see the dynamic between Raj Thackeray, Uddhav Thackeray and the BJP and how that works out,” he says.
He doesn’t really need to say more. Raj Thackeray showed all indications that he would not play second fiddle to the Shiv Sena. In the current Maharashtra assembly, his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena has 11 seats. So long as he stood alone, several seats for the Congress were assured, because the Sena and the BJP would be equally hit by the MNS.
Our lunch has arrived. We have asked for something quick and light. The chef -- who comes to ask if everything is ok and is so young it seems the hotel is employing child labour -- offers us mixed greens, moong dal and a paneer curry in some kind of flaky pastry: Indian food purists would call it “purdah”, those who know western food would call it filo pastry.
I am not overly fond of fusion food. The roti is nice, though.
I raised the concerns of India’s commercial capital -- the raids on industry, the FIR against Kumar Mangalam Birla. “I can understand that industry is angry with us,” Chavan says soberly, “especially about some decisions on taxation”. Which were taken by a man who was then promoted to India’s most important job, I interject. He presses on as if he hasn’t heard. “The Central Bureau of Investigation is investigating allocations of natural resources. The auction of these resources was a thought that came later. The decisions taken then were in tune with government policy. Now, maybe our government would do things differently. We now realise that part auction, part allocation is not the best policy. But at that time, policy was followed in its letter and spirit,” he says, putting up a slightly piteous defence.
“How do you counter the charge of cronyism and corruption?” I ask. “We have allowed the law to take its course,” he replies blandly. I snigger. “We will respond by our development record,” he goes on. It wasn’t much of an answer.
He promises a blitz of decisions on development and inclusion. “Let this election (the assembly lot) be over,” he says, “The economy has stabilised. The rupee is standing firm. Crude prices favour India. And we have had a good monsoon -- in Maharashtra especially, it has been better than expected, to the extent that we now have a problem of too much rain. So, we will have to give a package for those farmers who have lost their crops, but that is not such a serious problem. The fact is, the canal systems are now full.”
We are offered dessert. I pass on green apple kheer -- I like apples and kheer, but not the two together. The other option is coffee rasgulla tiramisu: a scandalously calorific confection of tiramisu on a base of rasgullas cut lengthways. The best part of the meal was to come: paan.
As we finish up I ask for the bill. So does he -- and does not let me pay. “You’re a lady,” he exclaims, appropriating the bill before I can react. My remonstrations -- that I was a reporter, not a lady and this was Business Standard protocol in any case -- fall on deaf ears. Anyway, he has his “chief minister” look back on, so I can do little more than thank him as he drives away, red lights flashing.