As someone who first became a legislator 52 years ago, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar is one of India’s most experienced and widely respected leaders. He has been Maharashtra’s chief minister and a Union cabinet minister multiple times, holding portfolios as varied as defence and agriculture.
Considered a key player in the move to bring opposition parties together, Pawar spoke to Vinod Sharma and Prashant Jha about the 2019 elections, Opposition unity, Narendra Modi’s performance as Prime Minister and farm distress, among other things. Edited excerpts:
Nine months before the next general elections, how do you read the national political situation?
The situation is basically like it was in 1975-76. I was a junior minister in the Maharashtra cabinet in those days, but in the party I was effectively in the Youth Congress. It was the Emergency, and we Congressmen were continuously projecting only Shrimati (Indira) Gandhi, and of course the young man (Sanjay Gandhi), but it was really her. Everywhere it was ‘Gandhi, Gandhi, Gandhi’. That was the atmosphere created by Congressmen.
The control of Mrs Gandhi as PM on the media, the government, and government agencies was just like it is today. I was the home minister and I was unhappy because of the Emergency and arrests, and so I asked the CM (SB Chavan) for agriculture. I concentrated on agriculture, food productivity and associated farmer issues and kept away from politics. For six days a week, I was travelling in villages.
My observation was that initially, the weaker sections were totally for Mrs Gandhi, but gradually the situation started changing. There was misuse of authority by various forces during Emergency and weaker sections began getting unhappy with the government. When Modi started his stint, for the first few years, the mood of the country was just ‘Modi, Modi, Modi’. But now, gradually, the situation is changing like it changed in ’76-’77.
How will this play out electorally?
In 1977, Mrs Gandhi suddenly announced the elections. There was no viable alternative, there was no party. The difference is there was one leader — Jayaprakash Narayan. Political leaders and people were willing to accept his advice. Ultimately, on his advice, most leaders forgot their parties.
There was no force, platform, and organisation. But they started working together and got massive support from the masses. And ultimately, Mrs Gandhi and the Congress were defeated. The alternative was found after the elections. The Janata Party was formed after the elections. No one was projected as PM candidate. After the formation of the Janata Party, they elected Morarji Desai.
Today, everyone is asking where is the leader, what is the platform, where is the alternative. We don’t have to worry about that. Today, the only question is to bring various forces together. Is it possible at the national level? My assessment is no. Is it possible at the state level? I am in close dialogue with various state leaders and my own assessment is yes.
But some parties, particularly the Congress, will have to take a rational approach. We cannot ignore the Congress. It is a force, it is important, and it has reach in many states. But simultaneously, the Congress should not forget that the old days have gone. The Congress will need to accept the days of its total dominance from Kashmir to Kanyakumari are over. I have spoken to Rahul Gandhi twice or thrice. And he is in a mood to realise this is the ground-level situation.
He has accepted it?
I will not say fully accepted, but I discussed it with him. Today, the country is not in the mood to accept one alternative to Modi. Anyone who can compare to Modi — that type of leadership with reach in all states is not there. You have to accept this. What is the solution? The solution has to be found state wise.
In Tamil Nadu, we all have to accept the force is Stalin or Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). The Congress or other parties have to take a secondary position. In Kerala, whether the Congress likes it or not, it has to accept that the Left has the upper hand. The Congress has to take a secondary position. In Maharashtra, the NCP and the Congress have to work together but we have to take the Left and Ambedkarites together. In Gujarat, the Congress has the upper hand, and others have to accept that the Congress is the force.
In Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Punjab and Haryana, the Congress is the force and others have to accept a secondary position. In UP, the Congress has to accept Mayawati and Akhilesh (Yadav) as the force and both of them have to provide some seats to Ajit Singh and some seats to the Congress, but a major chunk will be with the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party.
In Delhi, whether Congress likes it or not, the Aam Aadmi Party has to be accepted in the number one position. In Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu has to be accepted as number one. In West Bengal, Mamata (Banerjee) has to be accepted as number one. This is how we have to move in each state. This is the loose constellation.
I feel they will get good numbers. After the election, they can sit together and provide an alternative front. They should elect the leader among the MPs. The Congress, or any other political party, must not say I am the leader, I should be projected. I was glad when I recently saw a statement by Rahul Gandhi where he categorically mentioned there is no question of projecting XYZ or me as PM candidate and our total thinking is to replace the current government. It is important because it was not easy for the Congress to accept this. The Congress has taken this stand — this is the correct, sensible approach, which will ultimately be able to bring everyone together.
Some Congress people understand this. The Congress president told me that what I said is correct. But he said there are some states where it is difficult for my colleagues to accept or digest this situation, particularly Kerala and West Bengal. In Kerala, they feel our fight with the Left is equal. In West Bengal, the position is not like Kerala, but the overall thinking of the leadership of the Congress party about Mamata is such that it is difficult for them to accept her. He (Rahul) told me that it is difficult in these two-three states.
I told him, you are the leader, and it is your job to convince. I think he is in a mood to take a pragmatic position. That is a good sign. If that approach is taken by all of us, it will be good. I am the NCP chief and I have some colleagues in Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and MP; there are some MLAs too. But I have to accept that the Congress is the force there. A similar approach is needed by all of us. Then we can show some kind of alternative in the next 9-10 months.
Also, I honestly feel that there are some leaders like Sonia Gandhi, (HD) Deve Gowda and, while I should not say it, myself also… we have no ambition to become Prime Minister. At least I am speaking for myself. But I have ambition to bring all these forces together and provide a viable alternative. For that, some of us — the names I have mentioned — can travel throughout India and give confidence to the people of India because today, there is no JP (Jayaprakash Narayan). We have to provide a sort of confidence in the minds of the public at large.
PM Modi will project this as a presidential contest and the Bharatiya Janata Party will ask ‘Modi versus who’. How will you deal with that?
In ’77, it was only Indira, Indira, Indira. We in the Congress used to ask Indira versus who — George Fernandes? (LK) Advani? But the people did not accept it. People had made up their minds about wanting an alternative.
Have you mooted the idea of Sonia, Deve Gowda and you constituting this circle to them and other leaders?
I have not done it yet. But I want to discuss it with others.
You have gone back to 1975 and referred to Indira Gandhi repeatedly. Having known all prime ministers for the last 40 years, do you think Modi’s style resembles her style?
Indira ji’s style was also to control everything under her grip, in the party and government. It was totally controlled by one person. We are seeing a similar situation today. I have seen Modi as a very effective CM in Gujarat, my neighbouring state. I was also a CM. A person who is CM can work in the state in a manner where he can control everything. As the Maharashtra CM, I was closely associated with the state’s industrialisation and industry; I was associated with the agriculture sector, cooperative sector and education sector because I can look after the state.
To run Gujarat, for a person who is effective and capable, is easy. But to protect the interests and manage the affairs of the country as a whole is different. The issues of the northeast, of the south, are different. There are new issues in Andhra and Karnataka, there are protests in Maharashtra. To manage a state as a capable leader is one thing, and to manage a vast country like India in the same style is different. See what is happening in Assam.
Our observation is that the country and the BJP is in the grip of Modi and his party chief (Amit Shah). I feel if power is controlled by many hands, it benefits people. If power is concentrated in one man or one hand, it ultimately becomes corrupt and authoritarian. I don’t say it has got to that stage today. But I can say it is going towards an authoritarian route. And that is what we are watching at the national level… Too much concentration of power does not do justice to various sections of society.
The BJP has also been able to create a formidable organisation as has the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Is this a challenge for you?
In 1977, there was no organisation. I have contested 14 elections. My observation on elections is it is ultimately hawa — a mahaul, an environment, gets created. The mahaul today is in not in favour of the Modi government. Day by day, it is going against them.
The problem with alliances is that they have been short-lived. There is a distrust of coalitions involving many parties. The ’77 coalition, the ’96 coalition did not last. Do you think you will be able to get beyond this?
I will give you an example. In the 1960s, most northern Indian states had coalition — the SVD (Samyukta Vidhayak Dal) — governments. They could not survive. But in the next election, when people wanted to change the Congress, despite seeing the old SVD coalition, they still voted for the coalition. When people decide they want to change, then an environment gets created.
What do you think of Rahul Gandhi’s evolution as a leader? He gave an aggressive Parliament speech.
I had a few one-to-one talks with him. Every time I feel, there is a substantial improvement.
You also worked with Sonia. What is the difference between the two?
I fought against her. But still, we worked together extremely well and our equation was very good. She was trying to understand all issues carefully; she was giving respect to all other political leaders. Today, Rahul is also showing it. Definitely, there is an improvement.
Is there also a need for former Congressmen to come together? The issue on which you split does not exist.
That issue is not there. We are working together in many states. But on many occasions, the Congress does not take rational approach about their partners and thinks like a zamindar (landlord). That psyche has not completely gone.
So a distinct identity helps?
You referred to ’77. Back then, the only agenda was anti-Indira. So will 2019 be pro-Modi or anti-Modi election?
It will be anti-BJP.
The Opposition often says the BJP will use polarisation. Are you on the defensive on the question of secularism?
I don’t think so. Polarisation will be there, but this will be restricted to some pockets or areas.
But doesn’t the Opposition need a robust counter-narrative?
That’s why I say some of the senior leaders who have no ambition to be number one will have to work together to create that atmosphere in the country and campaign.
Do you think resources will a factor in the election, particularly for the Opposition?
Resources will be a constraint, 100%. We don’t see such financial support from the corporate sector because there is fear. They feel if we support and it gets reflected, what will happen… but if there is a mass movement, it won’t matter.
You have said twice you have no ambition left to be PM. But you are among the tallest leaders in the Opposition combine. What would you do if all other parties propose your name as PM?
I don’t think that way. Irrational thinking has no meaning in politics. There has to be rational thinking. My party will ultimately contest 30-35 seats throughout India. I may get 50% maximum. With that number, if anyone dreams of becoming PM of this country, he is quite away from reality.
Mamata Banerjee will contest 42 seats, but she seems to harbour ambitions.
She has categorically said leadership is not an issue.
Have you met Mayawati recently? What is your impression?
Yes, last week, I had a long meeting. She has consolidated the position in UP with the Samajwadi Party and others. But she expects other parties to take a rational approach in other states. She is totally for a change and she is ready to work hard.
Have you discussed broadening the Maharashtra alliance and including her as well?
I have not discussed it with her. I will be happy. Her association will pay dividends in the Vidarbha region.
Will the Shiv Sena and BJP split?
I can’t say it. As of today, the Shiv Sena leadership is definitely giving indications of disassociating from the BJP. They are attacking the BJP. But simultaneously, they are also a part of the Maharashtra and central government.
You mentioned the protests in your home state. You have been agriculture minister. Why are farmers in the country angry?
I was agriculture minister and I should not say it. I try to avoid speaking in Parliament also on this. But our regime (United Progressive Alliance) did a lot of things for the farming community. I saw suicides at that time also. I visited villages, I took Manmohan Singh to villages. We deputed independent organisations to go in-depth, like Tata Institute (of Social Sciences). And too much financial burden was a major reason. So we consciously decided to waive more than Rs 71,000 crores of liability for the farming community.
Second, we improved minimum support prices (MSPs). For the first few years, we were giving Rs 10 or Rs 15 per quintal for rice. We went up to Rs 100. The situation changed. I was also looking after the food ministry. In the first few years, I had to import wheat and sugar from outside. When we left power, India became the largest exporter of rice, the second-largest exporter of sugar, wheat, cotton, and the largest producer of milk and horticulture products. Today, I don’t see that type of situation. The government is claiming we have done this, but on the ground, unhappiness in the farming community is growing.
You understand corporate India well. The Opposition attacks the BJP for being a ‘suit-boot ki sarkar’, while corporates complain that the government has not been very favourable. What’s your reading?
Initially, in the first few years, the corporate sector was extremely happy. But as of today, along with the farming community, it is the trading community and corporates who are unhappy. They feel this government has not done anything; it has not done justice; its actions are against the interests of the corporate sector. This ‘suit boot ki sarkar’ is for three-four families. I don’t want to name the families. I come from that state and have extensive relations with everyone. But the whole country knows.