Although a key figure in the Union Cabinet for many years, Prithviraj Chavan, Maharashtra Chief Minister, is leading the Congress in a Lok Sabha election in the State for the first time. In an exclusive interview with Priyanka Kakodkar, he defends the presence of Adarsh-scam tainted former Chief Minister Ashok Chavan at a party rally, takes on BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, and denies talk of a deal with Raj Thackeray.

Is not the presence of Ashok Chavan at Rahul Gandhi’s rally having an impact on the party’s image?

Local organisers went by protocol which says all former chief ministers should be invited to rallies in their area. A person doesn’t become an outcaste just because there are cases against him. There are cases against [BJP leader] L.K. Advani, but he is not a [political] untouchable. Mr. Chavan is facing a trial and defending himself, which is the right of every citizen. Whether he is guilty or not will be decided by the courts.

Maharashtra contributed hugely to the UPA’s success in 2009. Isn’t the anti-incumbency factor both at the Centre and in Maharashtra a major issue this time?

People judged the performance of the NDA government at the Centre and the Shiv Sena-BJP government here and gave us the mandate. Ultimately, people will vote for development and we will retain their confidence.

But Narendra Modi says Gujarat is number one when it comes to development.

We are number one. I am willing to have an open debate with anyone. I am willing to challenge anyone to prove that we are second to Gujarat. There is a lot of hype and publicity surrounding Gujarat. We attract 10 times more FDI [foreign direct investment] than neighbouring States and our social development parameters are also better.

Won’t the scams linked to the UPA at the Centre and the Congress-NCP combine in Maharashtra have an impact on your prospects?

A party in power that tries to do something sometimes makes honest mistakes. Sometimes there is corruption. Whenever there have been allegations, our party has taken action even against senior politicians. This won’t be an issue when compared to our development record.

Do you wonder whether your ally the NCP will go with the NDA after the polls?

The NCP is basically an offshoot of the Congress party. Its ideology stems from Congress party ideals. I don’t think it will give up these ideals just to stay in power.

There have been allegations of a deal between the Congress-NCP government and Raj Thackeray which led to him to withdraw his road toll agitation. How do you respond to that?

I met him twice on the toll issue. Am I to be judged for meeting Opposition leaders? We did take action against Raj Thackeray’s people. Hundreds were arrested. His inflammatory speeches are being examined. I told him we will not spare you if you cross the limit.

But Raj Thackeray’s decision to contest the polls will help the Congress- NCP combine because he will cut saffron votes.

We didn’t engineer the split in the Shiv Sena. For Raj Thackeray to not contest elections would have been suicidal. You should instead ask the BJP about its deal with his party.