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August 24, 1999


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The Rediff Election Interview/ Sharad Pawar

'I have been the only campaigner in Maharashtra'

Sharad Pawar For a man who works 18 hours a day (21 hours during elections), Sharad Pawar is surprisingly short of time. The Maratha chieftain, who is now at the helm of a new political outfit -- the Nationalist Congress Party -- addresses half a dozen election rallies every day. Whatever time he gets in between is spent with local leaders and party workers. No wonder then that had to follow him across three cities and two regions of Maharashtra for an exclusive interview.

Pankaj Upadhyaya finally caught up with the former defence minister at Gevrai, a small dusty town deep in Marathwada. Though initially reluctant to talk, Pawar finally spared half an hour. In this short interview he spoke about his ouster from the Congress, his party's prospects in the forthcoming elections and his endless energy.

I have been travelling with you for the last three days -- from Pune to Kolhapur, from Kolhapur back to Pune and from there to Beed in Marathwada. You have addressed several meetings and met thousands of party workers. Where does the energy to do all this come from?

The public meetings give me strength. The response of people at these rallies energises me. The meeting I addressed in Gevrai was attended by about 60,000 people, the rally at Beed had a crowd of 40,000, while at Ashti, such a tiny place, there were about 20,000 people.

So is it something to do with power?

It's not a question of power. It's all about involvement.

This election has turned out to be particularly hectic for you?

Every election is hectic. See, in Maharashtra, at least in the last 20 years, I have been the only campaigner. I should not be saying this, but I am the only person who addresses 175 to 200 meetings in Maharashtra, whether it is assembly elections or Lok Sabha polls.

Along with the involvement of masses, probably it's your frequent visits to Kerala for Ayurvedic treatment that keep you going despite such long hours that you keep.

No, it's a habit. Normally, I work 18 hours a day. During election time I work over 21 hours. My day starts around 6 am and I address meetings through the day. Between 10 pm and 2 am I meet local leaders where we discuss local issues and local problems.

But this time there is the added strain of dealing with some really demanding allies. All your coalition partners seem to be pulling in different directions.

Well, if this time my coalition partners are pulling in different directions, in the last elections, when I was with the Congress, there were people within the party who were pulling in different directions. Then the pressure was at two levels -- Bombay and Delhi. At least now the problem is only at one level.

But don't you feel the comfort of an established party missing?

Sharad Pawar Of course, the Congress was a different situation. Here you have to build everything from scratch... fight the elections with the odds stacked against you. But the plus point is the instant response... people respond to your thinking. Also, you can apply your own mind and discuss issues with your colleagues working at the grass-roots level, get a pragmatic assessment and take decisions quickly.

In the Congress for every small thing you have to consult the general secretaries... and there are several of them. When I was practically leading the state, in those days some of today's general secretaries had just joined the Congress. Now, suddenly they have become bosses because of their close association with the hierarchy in Delhi. People who don't understand the situation at the ground level, people who don't enjoy mass support have got important positions in the party, and are dictating terms. Yes, if somebody who understands the nuances of politics orders people around, nobody objects. But why would anybody listen knowing fully well that the fellow can't even win his own seat?

The other day, you said in Kolhapur that the Nationalist Congress Party would form the government in Maharashtra.

One hundred per cent. There is absolutely no doubt about it.

You also said that the NCP would play a vital role in the formation of government at the Centre. What would be this vital role?

If the NCP, the Janata Dal-Secular and the Samajwadi Party together get 60 seats, it would mean that nobody would get a clear mandate to form the government at the Centre. In such a scenario our 60 seats would be the decisive factor.

Suppose you get 60 seats....

( Interrupts) I am not saying we will get 60 seats. This is just an example I have given you.

Fine. We just suppose that the NCP together with the JD-Secular and the SP get 60 seats. What will you do then? Will you support the new government from outside? Or will you share power?

See, one can't say anything at this stage. It's a combination of three parties and unless or until we all sit together after the election, after winning a respectable number of seats, how can we take any decision? But one thing is clear we will not support either the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Congress led by Sonia Gandhi.

Forget for a moment the alliance you have with the JD-Secular and the SP. How strong is your party beyond Maharashtra?

Sharad Pawar In the North-East we will definitely get some seats. In Gujarat we might win one or two. In Bihar we might win two or three seats.

In Kolhapur you said your party would contest at least 170 seats.

I said between 150 and 170 seats. We might win in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Assam, Meghalaya and Andaman and Nicobar Islands. So you see, we have selected certain states and we are concentrating there. We don't have the resources to contest more.

In Maharashtra we see you addressing huge rallies every day. Leaders are joining your party in droves. But nothing seems to be happening in Bihar or even in P A Sangma's state.

That's not true. In Sangma's state my deputy speaker got elected defeating a Congress candidate. It won't be surprised if there is a change of government there. And anyway, we don't claim that in two months we will be in every corner of the country.

How many seats will you win Maharashtra?

I won't be able to say anything unless or until candidates from each constituency are finalised. But I have never seen such response in my political career.

Everybody is calling you the prospective prime minister, but why haven't you declared your chief ministerial candidate?

Sharad Pawar No, the party has decided not to name anybody as the chief ministerial candidate.

But isn't Chhagan Bhujbal the obvious choice?

No. We have not identified anybody so far.

But Bhujbal is not contesting this time?

He wanted to, but we decided he should not. If everybody contests who will campaign? If he contests, the Sena will concentrate on his constituency and he would not be able to get out to campaign in other parts of the state.

For instance in Baramati, where I am a candidate, both the Shiv Sena-BJP combine and the Congress have supported an independent out of sheer desperation. They want me to be tied up in Baramati.

But Baramati should not bother you. You'll probably win with another record margin this time.

(Just smiles)

The Rediff Election Interviews

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