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September 4, 1999


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The Rediff Election Interview/ Prafulla Patel

'If we have 40 seats, we will play a decisive role in the formation of a government'

Bramhapuri is a small town deep in the tribal heartland of Chandrapur district in Vidarbha, Maharashtra. It is hard to locate a hotel here, mineral water is scarce and the Internet an alien phenomenon. This is where the campaign headquarters of Prafulla Patel, the Nationalist Congress Party spokesman and Lok Sabha candidate from Chimur, is located.

Naturally, you are surprised when Patel greets you with a 'Hello, how do you do' in an accent that can only be picked up at a convent school. A convent school in Vidarbha's backward tribal area? A deeper probe reveals he studied in Bombay where his family owns a house.

But what is Patel doing in Chimur? Isn't Bhandara, from where he has won three general elections, his stronghold? Also, didn't he lose from Chimur when he contested the seat in 1989? He answered these questions and several others in an interview to Pankaj Upadhyay just before setting out for another round of intense campaigning.

Why have you, after nurturing Bhandara as a constituency for several years, suddenly shifted to Chimur?

We want to strengthen our party in Chimur. The NCP is a new organisation… my coming here will lend strength to the party at all levels.

But at this juncture, when your party is new, don't you think winning maximum number of seats should be your priority? New areas can be identified and developed later also?

This is not a new constituency for me. Half of Bhandara district falls under the Chimur Lok Sabha constituency.

But you have won thrice from Bhandara?

I can win again from Chimur too. See, I want my party to do well in an area where it doesn't have a strong base. There are six assembly seats in the Chimur Lok Sabha constituency which I need to win also. My presence here will strengthen our prospects in all the six constituencies.

But you lost from Chimur in 1989.

That was a long way back. That election was held under different circumstances. I was not ready to come to Chimur. It was a last-minute decision taken by Rajiv Gandhi.

So what has changed in these 10 years?

From 1989 to 1999 is a very long story. I have been able to do a lot of work here in the last 10 years. As far as my personal standing and goodwill is concerned, it is as high here as it is in Bhandara. There is no reason why I should have any problems here.

People say you ran away from Bhandara because you knew it would be tough for you to win.

That's not true. Moving to Chimur, as I told you earlier, was a deliberate, planned move.

The last time the Congress was united and so was its ally the Republican Party of India, yet you won with a thin margin in Bhandara. This time both parties have split and that would have made your victory there quite impossible.

I don't believe so. Irrespective of whether the RPI has split or the Congress has split, my votes are intact.

But the Congress split would tilt the balance in the BJP's favour.

It is logical to assume that the split in the Congress will help the BJP, but it doesn't always work out that way. There is no arithmetic in politics. Those are specific situations where negative votes for one party help the other party. But that is not true here. I am going to win positive votes from all sections.

There are allegations that Prafulla Patel is using his financial muscle to buy votes.

These are old stories that have been repeated time and again.

But isn't it true that you financed Jogendra Kawade's campaign the last time when you were in the Congress and his party was your ally?

Yes I did. It was my responsibility as a senior partyman to see that our allies won. I myself campaigned for him…and now he is my opponent.

How do you see the NCP faring in Vidarbha?

The NCP will win at least five to six Lok Sabha seats out of the 11 in Vidarbha. In the assembly our party will win at least 30 of the 66 seats in this region.

These seem to be ambitious projections. Because unlike in other parts of the state, very few top leaders have come into the NCP fold. I can count them on my finger-tips.

I can count the leaders left in the Congress on my finger-tips.

But this split will help others parties, wouldn't it?

Not necessarily. Because the NCP will not only win its own votes, but pocket a sizeable number of Congress votes too. And there is 20 to 25 per cent floating votes which are not committed to any party. We will win a big chunk of these too. Also, people have decided to defeat the Shiv Sena-BJP coalition in the state and I feel the NCP is the only alternative available to such voters.

You are dismissing the Congress altogether.

Tell me where is the leadership in Maharashtra? Tell me one leader who is campaigning in Maharashtra? Is Prataprao Bhosale campaigning? Is S B Chavan campaigning? Is N K P Salve campaigning? Sharad Pawar is the only mass leader in the state. He is the one who is holding meetings all around the state.

Sonia Gandhi seems to be the only Congress leader campaigning here. She has a mass appeal, she is a leader in her own right… agreed. But can she be encashed upon as a leader in Maharashtra? Can she win votes at the state level?

Mr Pawar has that strong local factor working in his favour. Besides being a national leader, he has this very strong image of a state leader.

What according to you is the main national issue this election?

The main national issue is clear, we have to think in the context of a hung Parliament. All opinion polls have indicated this, though we don't agree with all of them. The NCP will win a substantial number of seats to play an important role in the formation of government at the Centre in event of a hung Parliament.

How many seats do you think you party will win?

35 to 40. And if we have 40 seats in Parliament, we have a meaningful role to play… in fact we will play a decisive role in the formation of a government.

Would that mean Sharad Pawar would stake a claim to be prime minister and Prafulla Patel would get a berth in the ministry?

Nobody -- not Mr Pawar nor myself -- have decided anything of this sort. What I am looking at is a meaningful role for the NCP at the national level, whatever it is. A lot would depend on whether it is a sharply divided Parliament or whether it is leaning towards one particular combination.

Coming back to the state. Sharad Pawar has declared three names, one of whom would be the chief minister if the NCP comes to power. Chhagan Bhujbal is one of them. Would he be acceptable to you? After all, he defected from Shiv Sena, while there are several others who have been with Pawar right from the beginning.

I think that is not an issue at this juncture. Anyway, I don't remember any discussion taking place in any fora in this connection.

Are you saying the issue should be debated?

I am saying all senior leaders should sit together and decide.


'Sharad Pawar is not the party. He does not even represent its sentiments nation-wide'

The Rediff Election Interviews

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