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The Rediff Election Interview/Sharad Pawar

April 27, 2004

harad Pawar had just ended a long, tiring day at work. It was the last day of the campaign for the second and last phase of the Lok Sabha election in Maharashtra.

His now-famous, last-hour rally in Baramati was raucous, to say the least. The Nationalist Congress Party leader showed no signs of discomfort, except a slight slurring of speech, from a surgery performed last fortnight to remove a swelling from his left jaw.

The usually dour politician appeared in a very good mood. His address at the Baramati rally had all the rustic humour of rural Maharashtra. He joked with journalists, posed for pictures, obliged them with the sound bites they wanted. He even made a forecast -- the Congress-NCP alliance is cruising along in Maharashtra while nationally the National Democratic Alliance will fall short of a majority.

But what about the opinion polls and exit polls that indicated it will be an uphill task for the Congress-NCP alliance in Maharashtra? What about the 10 percent swing pollsters had predicted against the alliance? News Editor Pankaj Upadhyaya rode with Pawar in his swanky BMW to get the answers.

The campaigning has come to a close in Maharashtra. How was this campaign for you and your party?

The campaign was very good. The response (from the people) was good. This is my 14th election personally.  Except for the first two, in the other 12 elections my responsibility was to look after the entire state. So this is nothing new. This time I could not spend the entire time campaigning because of my ill health.

This was one campaign where you wanted to play a role nationally. In your tie-up with the Congress, the stress was also on seats in states other than Maharashtra.

That is true. I could not do that here (in Maharashtra) also. I could cover only 50 percent of the area.

What is you assessment? Which way will Maharashtra vote?

If you study the 1999 election, we lost a majority of seats because the Congress and NCP fought separately and the BJP-Sena (Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena alliance) took advantage. If you study the 1998 election, where the Congress, Janata Dal (Secular) and Republican Party of India were together, we got 38 out of 48 seats. This year I am seeing the same kind of atmosphere that was there in 1998.

Your surgery put you out of action for quite a long time. How much of a handicap was that for your party?

It wasn't a handicap. In fact, the younger generation of the party proved its mettle in this election. So whether it is Mr R R Patil, Mr Jayant Patil, Mr Ajit Pawar, Mr Dilip Patil, Mr Anil Deshmukh. All these youngsters rigorously campaigned. Mr Bhujbal was always getting tremendous response. He also took it as a challenge.

So you see it as a blessing in disguise?

Definitely a blessing in disguise. The people of Maharashtra have accepted many youngsters as their leaders.

This swelling in your jaw -- is there a fear this can reoccur?

I can't say. The doctors are really happy with my surgery. But I would still like to take a second opinion. I might go to America.

Are the doctors happy with the way you have recovered?

Yeah, yeah.

This illness restricted you to just Maharashtra.

That also only a part of it.

But that gave Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee the opportunity to say that Pawar works only in Maharashtra.

Yeah, but what can I do? If something happens to your health, what can you do?

Maybe what he was also trying to say was that Pawar's power is restricted to Maharashtra.

Alright. Might be. He is the prime minister. But who are his colleagues? Who is Chandrababu? Who is his colleague from Tamil Nadu? They are all regional leaders. My party is a small and new party. But we succeeded in getting national recognition practically within a year of coming into being, which even the BJP also could not get. We also managed to get good numbers in Parliament. But I accept (we are small). When Mr Vajpayee's party was formed, for years together they were just losing deposits. It happens to a new party.

What is your take on Election 2004 at the national level?

I think some states will create a chamatkar (miracle).

Which are these states you are referring to?

Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Haryana, Bihar, Delhi. In these states there will be a clear setback to the NDA. They will not be able to form a government on their own strength. Let's see what happens.

You didn't mention Uttar Pradesh?

I have no idea about Uttar Pradesh. The process of election has just started.

What everybody is saying is that Mulayam Singh Yadav will emerge as the kingmaker. He is an old friend of yours. Do you have any idea which way will he go?

I can't say. But I am ready to accept one thing -- that Mayawati and Mulayam Singh will be very important factors in the process of formation of a government at the national level.

Now that there is some semblance of unity in the Opposition, do you agree that the Opposition missed a huge opportunity in not coming together immediately after the Gujarat riots?

That is true. But it's alright. It might be late, but one should not (hold a) grudge about that.

But you had offered a tie up to the Congress in Gujarat also.

Yes. But at that time the situation was not conducive for such a thing.

In less than a month, it will be exactly five years since you split from the Congress. How much has life changed for you in these five years?

We have got more authority and power. We have become independent in the process of decision-making. Our approach now is to discuss (issues) with local leaders and take a decision. We need not wait and see what's happening in Delhi. We have tried to decentralise the process of decision-making.

Was decision-making the only reason why you split from the Congress?

No. I have been expelled from the Congress. I was expelled because I raised this (Sonia Gandhi's) foreign origin issue.

In 1978 you split the Congress at the state level and then you were back in the party. Five years back it was at the national level. Now you have again joined hands with the Congress. Does this back and forth movement leave your voter a little confused?

No. There was a clarity why we took the decision. And if there was a confusion, they (the voters) would have taught us a lesson. As I mentioned earlier, this is my 14th election.

But isn't it ironical that you fought the last election on the issue of Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin and this time you are fighting against a party which has made it their main poll issue?

But in the last election we also fought against the BJP. Then they (the BJP) did not have the guts to raise the issue. Mrs Gandhi has taken a decision not to insist on leadership before this election and she has said we will sit together after the election and take a decision. There is no dispute now. So why fight? That is why we decided to come together. But our coming together will be a serious setback to the NDA. That is why Mr Vajpayee has begun attacking Mrs Gandhi.

You are talking of putting the leadership issue on the backburner for the time being. But what happens after the election? Once again it will become the main issue. A coalition must be led by somebody, right?

I don't think that will happen. Let us first get the numbers. We will think about it then.

There was a time when you looked like moving closer to the BJP. You were made the disaster management committee head. The prime minister sent you to Kashmir on a secret mission.

I was never sent to Kashmir on any secret mission. I want to make that position clear. And being made the head of the disaster management committee was an all-party decision. After the Gujarat earthquake, the prime minister had called a meeting of all political parties. In that meeting Smt Gandhi herself suggested that our's is the only country where there is no plan for disaster management. We always think after the disaster. I was seen as an expert to handle these types of emergencies.

When I was the (Maharashtra) chief minister there was this Latur earthquake, which was handled very efficiently. I was also invited to the World Bank. They had invited about 150 countries for my lecture on how to handle these type of emergencies. Secondly, when there was a bomb blast (the March 12, 1993 serial bomb blasts) in the city of Bombay [now Mumbai] in which over 355 people died, I saw to it that Bombay was normal within two days. So because of my…

I'll interrupt you here for a moment. One has heard this story often that after those terrible blasts, your first order was to run all BEST buses and local trains. You said if buses and trains are running, Mumbai is running.

Yes. I saw to it that each and every BEST bus runs. There is a psychology of Bombay. People of Bombay see a bus on the street and local trains running, they think it (the situation) is normal. So one has to see the public psyche also.

So because of that the responsibility for disaster management for the entire country was given to me. The prime minister himself was the chairman (of the committee), I was the vice-chairman. Mrs Gandhi was there, Laloo Prasad Yadav was there, number of other chief ministers were there. So there is no question of going (closer to the BJP). It was a national responsibility.

When there is a calamity, don't think about the party, think beyond the party. That is the kind of education we got in the Congress.

But later on there was this controversy that you made only recommendations and did nothing to implement those. The prime minister himself said this.

Vajpayee has become old. The terms of reference (of the committee) say clearly that responsibility given to me was to prepare a draft plan, which I have submitted. It was the responsibility of Mr Vajpayee to call a meeting and take a final view, which he has forgotten.

He himself said that Pawar was the chairman of the committee. That has shown he has aged. He was the chairman of the committee. I was the vice-chairman. But he is calling me the chairman. He has forgotten that my job was to prepare a report. The job to implement that report was of Mr Vajpayee. But that also he has forgotten. That is why he made such an irresponsible statement.

At this stage Pawar instructs his driver to slow down. He is heading to his sprawling farmhouse on the outskirts of Baramati for a well-deserved rest and wants the interview to end before he gets there.

Now that the Congress and NCP are back together, is there any regret about what happened in 1999?

No. I don't know. Whose decision was it to expel me from the party? Those people should think about it, not me.

What kind of working relationship now exists between you and Sonia Gandhi?

We have been working together for the last five years now. We have had a coalition government in the state.

So do you discuss things with her regularly?

No. It was a state government. It was not my responsibility to discuss these matters with the coalition partner. It was the responsibility of my party's leaders.

In your speech just now, you did not mention the issue of corruption.

I mentioned (it). I spoke about UTI. I spoke about petrol pump ghotala (scam). I also gave the example of T T Krishnamachari. When he was finance minister in Panditji's (Jawaharlal Nehru) government, Krishnamachari telephoned the LIC chairman to support one particular capitalist. It was viewed as misuse of authority and the prime minister told him to step down. So I said a minister was removed from his post for just making a recommendation. And in the Rs 78 crore UTI scam no minister was held responsible by Mr Vajpayee!

What about the Telgi scam?

People have realised beyond doubt that the BJP-Sena was responsible. The Telgi scam started from the Nashik Security Press. How did he manage to secure those machines from the press? Telgi and one of the Sena-BJP's friend -- he is in jail and happens to be an MLA and was also the alliance's candidate for the deputy speaker's post -- took a letter from a minister to a manager of the security press. That's how Telgi acquired the machines.

What about Chhagan Bhujbal? He was hand-picked by you.

In fact, Chhagan Bhujbal was instrumental in exposing Telgi.

Then why did you ask him to quit?

I did not ask him to quit. He quit on his own over the Zee TV incident (a Zee TV correspondent was beaten up by Bhujbal's followers).

You have to finish, he reminds me again

On the James Laine controversy, do you agree with the prime minister's statement that a book must be replied with a book?

The same prime minister has now said he had not read the book when he made the statement. He has now read the book and agrees that he made a wrong statement.

The car enters Govind Baug and Pawar orders it to a stop before the inner peripheral wall. This far and no further. I must ask my last question and leave.

Maharashtra's financial mess. A debt of over Rs 70,000 crore. Is there any hope?

Certainly, certainly. Mr Jayant Patil, the finance minister, he has improved the state's overall financial position. He has improved the revenue size and has substantially decreased the expenditure of the state and administrative costs. I am confident if we get another five years' time we will see to it that this state regains the special status it once enjoyed in the country.

Image: Rahil Shaikh

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