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February 28, 1998


The Rediff Election Interview/Prithviraj Chavan

'The next government will be Congress-led and not BJP-led'

Not many people, after graduating in Masters of Computers from Berkeley University in California, would prefer to join Indian politics. But here is a man who gave up his business and joined the family tradition: politics. Prithviraj Chavan's father was first elected to Parliament in 1957 from Karad in western Maharashtra, and retained the seat till his death in 1973. Upon this, Prithviraj's mother Pramilatai Chavan took over and took up the habit of winning the Karad seat. Except in 1980, when Y Mohite was elected from Karad on a Congress ticket, this seat has always been represented by the Chavan family.

In 1991, after his mother retired, Prithviraj gave up his business in computers and became a full-time politician. Known as 'Baba' in his constituency, he won the Karad seat in 1996 by 100,000 votes -- at a time when the Congress suffered severe setbacks in Maharashtra. In an interview with Syed Firdaus Ashraf, Chavan, secretary of the Congress Parliamentary Party, exudes confidence that the next central government will be led by the Congress and not by the BJP.

Who will form the next government in New Delhi?

We hope to get a fairly large majority of seats at the moment. I think, we will touch 200 seats and will be the single largest party. And therefore, I think some constituents of the United Front should support us in forming the government.

Where will these seats come from? Opinion polls project that your party will touch around 155. Moreover, in UP and Bihar, which together have 139 seats, the Congress has lost all its support.

In Maharashtra, we will gain 30 seats. There will also be a gain in Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab and Haryana. And I think we will be able to form the next government. Let me remind you, in 1991 when the Congress formed the government at the Centre, at that time too we did not gain many seats in UP and Bihar.

You had withdrawn support to the UF government over its inaction on the Jain Commission report. So why didn't you make it an election issue?

The Jain Commission was an issue with us and not with the common public. Though some people say that the Congress is responsible for the present instability, I will not agree. Because in the first place, if we wanted instability in the country, we would have never supported the UF government. We could have gone to the polls next month itself. So, it is thanks to the Congress that the UF government lasted for 18 months. And the Jain Commission report was an emotive issue with us and not for the common man. Therefore the Jain Commission is not a main issue for us in the election.

Do you agree that the Congress is unable to conceive of life without power?

No, this is not true. If we wanted to be in power. we could have called for elections in one month's time. But not a single of our MPs wanted an election then.

Since you are saying that you will form the next government, which party will support you?

Excluding the Communist parties, we will get the support of all other secular parties to form the government. Because we feel that we will get nearly 200 seats and other secular parties excluding the Communists will get 100 seats. So we can form the government. But one thing is sure, the BJP is not going to form the government this time.

So why did you not have a pre-poll alliance with the non-BJP parties?

In Uttar Pradesh, Muslims blame the Congress for the demolition of the Babri Masjid. And they feel that Mulayam Singh was the person who stood up against the communal forces and protected them. If Mulayam had aligned with the Congress, then he would have himself lost the Muslim votes. So, perhaps he thought that the alliance with Congress could be counter-productive. And moreover, no one was very keen to have an alliance with us. And if Mayawati and Mulayam would have come together, it would have been a different story altogether for the BJP in this election.

Do you think the coming together of Mayawati and Mulayam Singh and other secular parties against Kalyan Singh is a sign that all the secular parties will form a government to keep the BJP out of power?

Yes, they have come together for the purpose of keeping Kalyan Singh out of power. You see, everybody has realised that ever since the BJP-Shiv Sena government came to power in Maharashtra, the BJP is being well financed by the businessmen in Bombay and the media is also giving them a good coverage. So, I am sure that all secular parties will stick together to keep the BJP out of power.

Coming to your constituency, what is the reason behind your family's dominance of the Karad seat?

In 1957, my father won this seat on the Peasants and Workers Party ticket even though Y B Chavan, the former chief minister of Mahrashtra, hailed from this constituency. After the formation of Maharashtra state, Chavan realised that he could not keep PWP stalwarts out of the Congress since it was not beneficial to the state. So, he invited my father and a lot of PWP leaders to join the Congress. After that he contested the elections on a Congress ticket and was always close to Indira Gandhi. He was also a very popular lawyer in our constituency. He was always with Indira Gandhi and favoured her during bank nationalisation. He was a Left-of-Centre politician. After he died, Indiraji decided to field my mother in his place. And we have always had very good family relations with Rajiv Gandhi. In 1991, my mother retired.

So, Rajiv told me to contest the election since he wanted me to enter politics. He said there are better engineers and scientists who may not get elected, but I may get elected. Because of our family background, he was sure that I will win. And in 1991, I won this seat for the first time. I think because of the good work among the people our family is recognised everywhere in Karad. And that is why when the Congress was routed all over Maharashtra, in 1996, I won this seat by more than one lakh votes.

What is the reason for the Congress winning only the seats in western Maharashtra while it was wiped out in other places?

No, I won't say it was wiped out. I think the United Front was a major factor last time which caused the Congress's defeat. And, I think Y B Chavan who led the formation of Maharashtra state gave western Maharashtra a different social base. Even before Y B Chavan, people like Shahu Maharaj, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and Jyotiba Phule hailed from these areas. So, there is a long tradition of socialist leaning that has allowed the Congress to maintain a distinct identity. And these rightist forces were never allowed to set foot here.

Another factor was that the co-operative movement started from this region. And it was always loyal to the Congress. But now, the very co-operative movement is turning against the Congress, because it is only loyal to the chief minister of Maharashtra. So today, the co-operative movement is causing us a problem.

In your neighbouring constituency, Ichalkaranji, 25,000 power looms have closed down. And many co-operative powerlooms are facing a threat of closure. Do you think the BJP-Sena government's discriminatory policy against the Congress-run co-operative factories will result in their closure?

The co-operative movement has a problem. The kid-glove treatment which the government was giving it earlier cannot continue in the era of liberalisation. They will have to stand up and face competition. In the age of efficiency, only better management will make them survive.

I spoke to several people at Congress-run co-operative looms, who say that the BJP-Sena government is responsible for their sorry state.

The Congress really nurtured the co-operative movement because there were droughts in this region. However, the present government is not supporting the co-operative movement. In fact, they suspended one of the elected members of the boards in Karad mainly to accommodate my opponent. So, the alliance government equates the strength of the Congress with these co-operatives. And therefore they are trying their best to break the co-operative movement.

A lot of young people are attracted to the Sena and its chief Bal Thackeray. How do you explain that?

Yes, but that was in the 1996 election. But not now, since they have realised that the Shiv Sena's assurance of 27 lakh (2.7 million) jobs for the youth was a complete fake. And therefore they are turning back to Congress.

How will you explain the Congress's failure in Maharashtra?

In Maharashtra, unfortunately, the party apparatus at the district level is not very strong. The election campaign should be run by the party headquarters which is not done. Today, the elections are fought very professionally. It is like running a corporate office which we were not geared for. Anybody who is geared to do it, has an edge today. People's aspirations have changed, but the Congress didn't change along with those aspirations.

We were still anchoring the same old story that we won freedom and stories about secularism. And a concept like secularism is very abstract. We must tell the people what are the dangers of communalism rather that preaching secularism. And we were not able to project any hope for the future.

Besides, we lost the 1995 assembly election because of infighting and in 1996 we lost because of the the Third Front. So, it is wrong to say that it was a victory of the Sena-BJP.

How may seats does your party expect to win in Maharashtra this time?

As of this moment, we will win 30 plus.

From where?

The entire 12 seats of western Maharashtra, three in Bombay, and other seats in Konkan, Vidarbha and Marathwada, where we will pick up seats because of the seat arrangement with the RPI and SP.

How far has Sonia Gandhi been able to influence voters in Maharashtra?

In a major way. First of all she stopped the exodus. Also, in Maharashtra Dalits and Muslims have come back to us. So, there is a direct ten per cent swing in our vote percentage.

What are the major issues you are fighting on in Karad?

It is a rich constituency. There are good roads and you will find there are lot of two-wheelers and colour television sets in our constituency. Now, the people are even demanding telephones. But there are some hilly areas where there are still not good roads. So, we are trying to do something in that area. But people want some factories to start in our region for jobs. And, I am trying hard to get some of the companies in our constituency.

The Rediff Election Interviews

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