Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar launched the election campaign of the Congress-NCP alliance here on Sunday. Significantly, Mr. Pawar called for a greater role by the younger leaders in the alliance. “Earlier in the day, Sushil Kumar Shinde [Union Power Minister elected from Solapur] suggested to me that we had grown old, and it was time to bring the next generation of leaders forward. I agreed with him.”

The Union Agriculture Minister defended himself on the front of rising sugar prices. “No leader in Maharashtra has been criticised as much as I,” he said. “But when you set out to do something good, criticism is inevitable. Sugarcane growers have got a better deal for their produce because of the rising prices.” Southern Maharashtra is the State’s sugar belt.

Mr. Pawar also shrugged off the flak he had received, on the ground that the step was not economically sound, for waiving off Rs. 7,000 crore worth loans taken by farmers in the State’s Vidarbha region. “Banks sank because of the rich people and not because of the farm loan waiver.”

Mr. Shinde emphasised the Congress-NCP unity by saying that the two parties belonged to the same family. “We have built separate houses, but our kitchen remains common,” he said as the audience laughed.

Criticises rebels

Coming down heavily on rebels in the party, State NCP president R.R. Patil said: “People who can’t remain loyal to the party will never remain loyal to the people. I appeal to you not to encourage this aaya-Ram-gaya-Ram [here one day, there the next] culture in politics.”

He also told the gathering to be wary of the Third Front, which, he called, “an addition of zeros.” “Lots of zeros are coming together to construct an electoral equation. You should guard against them. They will only divide the secular votes.”

Mr. Patil refuted allegations that the Congress-NCP was not a united front. Instead, referring to the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance, he pointed out: “In an article in the Saamna, the Sena’s mouthpiece, the party called the BJP a ‘dead parrot’.”

Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal recalled another article in the Saamna that had called the BJP the ‘Bharatiya Jinnah Party’, taking a dig at the controversy over Mohammed Ali Jinnah that had plagued the party last month.

Mr. Patil admitted that the Congress and the NCP were involved in a “tug-of-war” for some time. But eventually the two had agreed to settle their issues as they “did not want to divide the secular votes.”

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