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The Rediff Interview/Ranjit Deshmukh

August 18, 2004

Ranjit Deshmukh is in an unenviable position today. Replaced by Prabha Rau as president of the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee just a few months before the state goes to the polls, he has been pushed to the sidelines. But it's a position Deshmukh must be familiar with by now, and he must also know pretty well how to spring back from there.

He sprang back in 1997 when he was first removed from the post of MPCC chief. He sprang back when he lost his ministerial post in Vilas Deshmukh's government in 2000.

On both occasions, his springboard was the demand for statehood for Vidarbha, the far eastern region of Maharashtra he hails from. This time too Deshmukh looks ready to raise the bogey of Vidarbha. And this time he has an inspirational figure in K Chandrashekhar Rao, who used the demand for a separate state of Telangana to weave electoral success in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh in the May general election.

No wonder then that Deshmukh, as soon as he was sacked, rushed to a meeting with KCR. So, what was the mantra KCR gave him? Chief Correspondent Syed Firdaus Ashraf and Senior Correspondent Vijay Singh met Deshmukh just days after he completed a tour of Vidarbha to find out:

What was the response to your tour?

I visited all 11 districts of Vidarbha. I found there are many things that the people of Vidarbha want. One among them is a separate state. The other is [redressal of the] development backlog. The issue of a separate state of Vidarbha is pending since 1918, when the All India Congress Committee cleared it through a resolution. When Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister, he formed the Sangma committee [under the leadership of P A Sangma, later to become speaker of the Lok Sabha], which also favoured a separate state of Vidarbha. This recommendation too was not accepted.

Vidarbha has always been a Congress bastion and still the party has never supported wholeheartedly the idea of a separate state.

The people of Vidarbha feel the need for a separate state. The Congress party never gave them that. Therefore, I feel, the Congress did badly in this [recent] election... they won only one out of 11 seats in the region. The other thing is the development backlog. When united Maharashtra came into being [the unilingual state of Maharashtra was created in 1960], Chief Minister Yashwantrao Chavan had promised to give Vidarbha more than what it required. In 1982, the [V M] Dandekar Committee also made a similar suggestion. Despite all this, Vidarbha's backlog has only increased.

What about the Pranab Mukherjee committee formed for Vidarbha? Dr Manmohan Singh was also part of that. Both of them occupy top posts in the country now.

That committee was the Congress party's internal committee for Vidarbha. The party adopted resolutions in 1918, 1928, and then 1997 when I was the MPCC president [supporting the demand for statehood for Vidarbha]. The Pranab Mukherjee committee also looked into the possibility of smaller states.

What is your plan now?

I held meetings in all 11 districts of Vidarbha. People from all walks of life participated in these meetings. The people are aware of Vidarbha's backlog. They are serious about the demand for a separate state. I didn't impose my views on them. I just put all the facts before them and asked for their opinion. Several political leaders too attended our meetings, [but] many others were hesitant to attend for fear that the party will not give them tickets in the coming assembly election [if they were seen with Deshmukh].

Dalit voters seem to have drifted away from the Congress in Vidarbha. The Bahujan Samaj Party has gained ground.

It's not like all dalits have turned against us. Basically there is a disintegration of the Republican Party of India into many groups. They are Congress party allies. Some people feel that the Congress is giving too much importance to the RPI and therefore there is some discontent. This has affected both the Congress and the RPI. So far as the BSP is concerned, it has emerged powerful because of the infighting between the Congress and the RPI.

Is the BSP a strong force in Vidarbha now?

You cannot call them a strong force. They have benefited from the situation that I just mentioned.

There is a rumour that former deputy chief minister Chhagan Bhujbal may join the BSP. [The possibility has since been denied by both the NCP and Bhujbal.] Will this development affect political equations in the region?

Definitely there will be some changes when someone like Bhujbal, who was in the Congress and also in the Shiv Sena, moves. He is a powerful leader. He can make some difference in the political equations if he goes to the BSP.

You have worked hard to strengthen the Congress in Maharashtra. Don't you feel bad when you are sidelined?

Sometimes I do feel bad, but what to do? The Congress is a big party and there are many problems. Some people desert the party when a small injustice is done to them. But I am not that type. I am loyal to the party. I am in the party since 1972. My father and forefathers were involved with the Congress since the independence movement. My grandfather died in jail during the 1942 Quit India movement.

But did you ever think 'enough is enough'? Sharad Pawar has quit the party twice. Have you never felt the urge to walk out?

What can I say? I am a bit habituated to being sidelined. But this time they have crossed the limit.

What limit? Can you elaborate on that point? Have they pushed you to the wall?

Not exactly to the wall...

But for how long can one be a rebel in a party?

That is a problem with the Congress party. They are not keeping their ears open. They should take decisions by taking everyone into confidence. There were differences of opinion between [Jawaharlal] Nehru and [Vallabhbhai] Patel, but they always spoke about those differences openly, discussed their points of view.

Does it mean the Congress has become too authoritarian? If you express your opinion against the state leadership, you are out?

That is the case.

You visited all 11 districts of Vidarbha. Are you going to submit a report to the party?

We will send a report to the Congress party.

There is a rumour that party president Sonia Gandhi does not favour statehood for Vidarbha.

It's not like that. She had agreed [to Vidarbha's demand] when Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Uttaranchal came into being.

Are there any historical reasons that give Vidarbha an identity independent of Maharashtra?

Culturally, politically, financially, and in many other ways we are different from the rest of Maharashtra. Vidarbha's culture has no similarity with that of western Maharashtra, Konkan, and even Marathwada.

Have western Maharashtra leaders neglected the development of Vidarbha?

Definitely. In the last two to three years the neglect is worsening. All the important ministries are with the Nationalist Congress Party and western Maharashtra is a stronghold of the NCP. So, they always think more about western Maharashtra.

What about malnutrition deaths in Vidarbha?

Malnutrition deaths and farmer suicides are both serious cases. The way the government is going about this problem is not proper.

The government is not serious?

Now they have become serious. Earlier they were not. When malnutrition cases were reported nobody went there to check the situation. The main reason for the farmers' suicides was the forceful recovery by moneylenders. The moneylenders would harass the farmers.

Did you discuss this with Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde?

I didn't get time for that, but I sent him a letter.

What are the prospects of the Congress in the coming assembly election?

I can't say anything at this stage.

Will Vidarbha be an issue in the coming assembly election?

We still have to decide on that.

Are you satisfied otherwise with the Maharashtra government's performance?

No comments.

But you are known to have a voice of your own...

I said that we are not doing the right things to control farmers' suicides and malnutrition deaths.

Are you in touch with Sonia Gandhi? Do you have any plan to meet the AICC general secretary in charge of Maharashtra, Margaret Alva?


Every time you raise the demand of statehood for Vidarbha, your party tries to muffle your voice by allotting you an important role in the party or government. Something similar expected this time too?

In reality it's different. In 1997 when I became MPCC president I spoke for a separate Vidarbha state. I lost my job for that. After that I became a minister. When I raised the demand for a separate state of Vidarbha, I lost my job.  So the reality is different.

What difference would a separate state make to the lives of the people of Vidarbha?

Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Uttaranchal are doing well after they were separated from their parent states. So Vidarbha too will do well if it secedes from Maharashtra.

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