Nationalist Congress Party leader and Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has scaled down the number of his election rallies from the usual 200 to about 130 for Maharashtra’s October 13 Assembly polls. Speaking to The Hindu while travelling from Beed to Aurangabad during his hectic tour of Marathwada, he said the onus of campaigning should now shift to the youth in the party. Election rallies in general have been hit by the late withdrawal of the monsoon in the State, making helicopter travel options dicey. The time available is even otherwise limited, and he has had to skip two meetings already. Yet, Mr. Pawar is confident that the Congress-NCP alliance will form the government again. In Maharashtra only once has a totally non-Congress government been elected, and anti-incumbency is not really a factor, he says. The drought is worrisome for the country as a whole but will not be a factor in this election. Mr. Pawar feels that about 26 to 28 of the over 100 rebels who are in the fray are serious candidates and could mean trouble for the alliance. While he has been taking a tough stand on rebels, in the event of their winning the alliance could debate its course of action. The NCP is contesting in 114 constituencies in the State, while its ally the Congress is in fray in 174.

Excerpts from the interview:

You’ve been touring Marathwada. How will the NCP perform there?

By and large the public is with us. Last time there were some internal problems in Beed and in 2004 we had one seat from this district. But now I can see it in the eyes of the people and their faces that they are with us. As a politician for 35 years I can gauge their reaction. I’m sure we’ll win five of the six seats in Beed and our performance in Marathwada [an Opposition stronghold] will be better this time.

You’ve been saying that you want to give the young more responsibility. Does this mean you’re planning to retire?

My campaigning is limited this time. I usually address 200 rallies but this time it’ll be around 130 or so. The time is limited and the weather is also uncertain due to the rains. I had to skip a meeting in Parbhani and earlier one in Thane due to heavy rains. There were over 50,000 people in Parbhani and it’s very bad for the candidate if a rally is missed. But there was no option.

I’ve no plans to retire but I plan not to contest for the Lok Sabha again. I’ve contested 14 elections so far and only in the first election did I get less votes, 56 per cent. After that I got up to 70 to 80 per cent. How many times will you go to the people asking for votes?

Children who were five years old when I stepped into politics are my voters now. I’ll be happy to go to the Rajya Sabha; please don’t call this backdoor entry, though. I’m not keen on direct elections. I enjoy public life and am associated with a variety of institutions.

How do you think the Congress-NCP alliance will fare this time?

It’s too early to say but it’s possible that we’ll form the government. I’ve been in Amravati, Hingoli, Beed, Aurangabad, Jalgaon, and I got a very good response. Anti-incumbency is not much of a factor. Till now there has been only one totally non-Congress government in Maharashtra. There was one more, the Progressive Democratic Front of which I was a part. The Congress has been dominant here and we’ve not seen any anti-incumbency. In terms of percentage-wise votes the NCP will have a performance similar to 2004 (the NCP won 71 seats then). But this time the NCP and the Congress are working together seriously by and large, and it all depends on [their] sincerely working together.

Was your performance in Western Maharashtra below par in the Lok Sabha elections?

There is not much difference overall. We won eight seats in the State. We gained in Mumbai, Thane, Marathwada and Vidarbha. This time the people who came together against us in the Lok Sabha, like Raju Shetti who won from Hatkanangale and NCP rebel Shivajirao Mandlik, are opposing each other. They’ve even fielded candidates against each other.

What about talk of the NCP merging with the Congress?

This will not happen. People in my party feel they can have decentralised decision-making. No one is interested in going to Delhi every time. They’re happy to take decisions in their districts. We take an interest in the Lok Sabha elections, but for Assembly it is the local leadership right down to the district level that’s involved. I’ve left it to the local people. How will they grow otherwise?

What are the issues in this election? Will the drought have an impact?

The Opposition is harping on price rise, the terror strike of November 26, and law and order. Farm suicides are not a major issue this time. The farming community is happy with the higher, remunerative prices but the price rise has upset people and the insufficient rains have affected all crops. As the Agriculture Minister I’m worried for the country, but as far as the election goes the situation is somewhat resolved by the late rains. The drinking water and fodder issues are not so grave and even the crops have revived. If the rains continue for a while, it’ll be good for the rabi crop as the increased moisture will be beneficial. We can import oil but pulses are a problem. We require 18 million tonnes annually and our production is usually 14 million tonnes. There’s a gap of four million tonnes which we have imported if you see in the last four years. However, this time even Burma [Myanmar] which usually supplies us is not in a position to do so.

In about 61 lakh hectares, paddy could not be transplanted and that is 10 per cent of the country’s area under paddy. I’m making efforts to take rice as a rabi and summer crop and bring additional areas under cultivation. We’re making a special effort for pulses and oilseeds too with special incentives, like seed availability and more credit. We’re trying to make power available in the northern States. The kharif crop is affected, though the area under pulses is more than last year.

What about the rebellion in over a 100 seats in Maharashtra? How serious is this?

Some rebels may help us but I’m not sure how damaging it’ll be. But the rebels are serious in 26 to 28 seats all over the State. There are some serious contenders against both the Congress and the NCP. In some cases the local NCP-Congress equation is so bad, the rebels could have opposition. In this case, if the votes come to the official party candidate, then we can even win those seats. The Opposition too has rebels but there they often go to the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and get the ticket. If rebels win, we’ll discuss what’s to be done after the election.

How will the MNS impact the Assembly elections? How will it affect the Shiv Sena?

Difficult to say but I’ve been seeing the phenomenal attendance at Raj Thackeray’s rallies and it’s mostly very young people. Even if they [the MNS] divert 7,000 to 10,000 votes in an Assembly seat, that means victory for us. The MNS will win some seats; it will open its account this time. In Mr. Bal Thackeray’s lifetime the Shiv Sena will continue but in the future the capacity to organise and enthuse is more in Raj Thackeray. His speeches are typically Thackeray-style. He uses harsh language — which does not look nice for him — and his style of functioning is like the elder Mr. Thackeray. He’s also a cartoonist and his voice, speaking style and sarcasm are the same. He attracts the younger generation as his uncle once did.

What about the unity of the republican parties and the new Republican Left Democratic Front?

Yes, they could cause some dent in certain seats and it could affect the alliance, but it’s too early to say if they can win. Let the campaign pick up. However, not all Dalit votes will go to the RLDF, maybe only in some areas. The Front is Left but one of its constituents, the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP), has an understanding with the Shiv Sena in Raigad. How can they tolerate this? It shows what kind of a front it is.

How challenging is this round of elections? How will the alliance do in Mumbai? Will you take the support of the MNS if needed?

To maintain the performance as in the Lok Sabha election in Mumbai especially is not easy. Our numbers will be stable and they may improve. This is like any other election. Sometimes you lose and sometimes you win. But we will get that magic figure and come back to power. We don’t need outside support. I don’t see a situation where the support of the MNS is needed.