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A pre-election Mahagathbandhan against the BJP is unlikely, says Sharad Pawar

Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar at his residence in Mumbai.   | Photo Credit: Vivek Bendre

With less than a year to go for the Lok Sabha elections, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) president Sharad Pawar is expected to play a crucial role in bringing Opposition parties together to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Mr. Pawar says the centralisation of decision-making in the Narendra Modi government will hurt the BJP and terms the party’s recent attempt to remind people of the 1975-77 Emergency a ploy to distract from its own performance. The circumstances surrounding Judge B.H. Loya’s death and the silence of corporate leaders on the government’s functioning suggest an atmosphere of fear, he says. He also believes that a prime ministerial candidate from the Opposition is only likely to emerge after the election results — just as Morarji Desai was picked after the 1977 elections. Excerpts:

What do you make of the BJP’s attack on the Congress over the Emergency of 1975?

The next general elections are among the most important, particularly for the BJP which would certainly want to retain power. If that happens, it will not be good for the country. The party lost in 2004 despite having a restrained and inclusive leader like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the present Prime Minister knows it. Ideally, a ruling party should present its achievements in the last year of its tenure. But in the case of Narendra Modi, despite his numerous foreign outings and rallies all over, promises of bringing back black money did not materialise. Then came the demonetisation move, which at first the poor had welcomed thinking that it would end terrorism in Kashmir and that the rich would be left with no black money. But it has failed completely. Promises of employment, increase in agricultural production and giving 50% over the production cost to the farmers have also not been met.

So you feel the government is raking up the Emergency to divert attention from its failures?

Yes. The government has absolutely nothing to take credit for and the question is: how to deflect the incoming onslaught over these failures? So it raises the 40-year-old issue of Emergency. No one here is supporting the Emergency. Even I had formed my own party then by quitting the Congress. But one must understand that the people of India punished Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi after the Emergency through the elections. People found an alternative to her. But the Indian people also re-elected her later. The BJP is unable to digest this. This is the reason why it seems to have launched a systematic, aggressive attack again. But one must understand that the younger generation is not bothered about what happened 40 years back. This generation wants to know what you are offering today.

Is Narendra Modi making it a personal battle by attacking ‘the family’?

This is a worrying fact. In a democracy, you may have policy differences, but today what we see is personal acrimony from Mr. Modi’s side. His attack is targeted at Indira Gandhi’s family. She may have imposed the Emergency, but her contribution to India is unparalleled. One may create history, but she reshaped the geography of India. She was killed in 1984; even Rajiv Gandhi is not alive today. How can Rahul Gandhi be questioned about these?

The Congress then and the Congress now are two different things altogether. The party was everywhere then, but now regional parties are overpowering it in many States. If Mr. Modi is anticipating a repeat of the elections after the Emergency in 2019 by speaking against the Gandhi family, I do not think that is going to work.

In 1977, the Janata Party campaigned on an anti-Congress platform and formed a government. Will there be an anti-BJP Mahagathbandhan in 2019?

In 1977, there was a wave against Indira Gandhi due to the Emergency. I cannot speak on everyone’s behalf, but as far as my communication with some leaders and my political understanding go, these media discussions of a Mahagathbandhan are not practical. Every State has a different political situation. There is no wave as such against anyone at present. The regional parties have grown more powerful than the Congress in some of the States. Certainly, there is a will to fight against Mr. Modi from a single platform but it is not possible because different parties have different political compulsions. For example, how can the Congress and the Left join hands in Kerala? It is very unlikely that anything like a Mahagathbandhan will be formed before the election. But in every State, the regional powers that defeat the BJP will be more powerful. After elections, if numbers permit, these parties will come together.

Are you suggesting a State-by-State approach over a national front against the BJP?

That has to be the way. After elections, these regional parties with numbers would come together just like the way it happened after the Emergency, when Morarji Desai emerged as the prime ministerial candidate through consensus.

But for that, won’t the Congress have to change its expectation of being the fulcrum of this alliance?

Not only the Congress, but all of us. I am confident that the Congress will take a realistic view of things. The present Congress leadership has a realisation of the ground-level political situation. Though the party is eager to expand, there is a realisation of the actual situation and there will be a pragmatic approach in elections.

‘Who else, if not Mr. Modi?’ is another line of argument from the ruling party. Do you think the Opposition needs to name a prime ministerial candidate before the general elections to counter this ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA) factor?

There is no prime ministerial candidate in front of us, as of now. We don’t believe in this concept in the first place. In 1977 too, Desai was not the candidate. Parties had decided to defeat Indira Gandhi, and after the results, they came together and elected him. Post-2019, I will be a part of [the attempt of] bringing State players together if numbers require. I don’t believe in doing this for a Mahagathbandhan, before polls. The numbers will decide. The one with higher numbers will decide.

The BJP has said that this is a ‘Modi vs. all’ campaign as the corrupt Opposition is ganging up against a leader with a saaf niyat (clean conscience). Your comments?

The BJP is simply copying this theme from Indira Gandhi. Her campaign too was on similar lines. I am not concerned about what the BJP is saying, but more worried about the concentration of power under just one thumb. The interesting fact about power is, if it gets concentrated under one person, then after some time, this leads to more corruption. The trend is visible now. If power is shared by multiple people, it remains under control by multiple agencies.

But the PM has often stressed that he adheres to the Constitution of India.

That’s a very funny statement. In his speech criticising the Emergency, he spoke about the judiciary being pressurised through an impeachment motion [against then Chief Justice of India] in Parliament.

I happened to read a story about Judge B.H. Loya, who was handling the Sohrabuddin murder case. The death of Judge Loya has raised several questions. There are examples that judges hearing the Sohrabuddin case have been transferred abruptly, without explanation. The impeachment motion did not even proceed, but here judges have been transferred from a sensitive case. Who is pressurising the judiciary here?

You had described Chief Minister Modi as an able administrator. Has the perception changed now?

As an Agriculture Minister, I used to interact with him, mainly because his attacks on [then PM] Manmohan Singh had made Congress Ministers dislike him. My impression was that he was working hard, but everything in Gujarat came under his control.

As a CM, that might work, but as the PM, it will never work. Different States come up with different issues. At the Centre, one requires teamwork and I honestly feel that Mr. Modi is lacking in teamwork.

What’s the feedback you get from the corporate world? Are they happy about the government?

Not at all. They live in fear. They are not ready to open their mouths. Manmohan Singh was the type of person who was ready to listen, hear criticism and take corrective action. But today, I do not see this. Barring a few exceptions, no one has the guts to give honest feedback to the PM. This is bad, not only for the economy, but for the country.

The only thing Mr. Modi does consistently is to attack the Congress, even when he is travelling to other countries addressing gatherings. It is highly improper because he is India’s PM and not just the BJP’s.

Is this government playing vendetta politics against certain former Ministers like P. Chidambaram?

Of course, this government has a vindictive approach. When in each meeting, the PM attacks a single family, what signal does he send to his bureaucrats and investigation agencies?

Whether it is the Central Bureau of Investigation or the Intelligence Bureau or the Enforcement Directorate, when they are instructed to go against a particular person, the investigation officers know the intention.

It is being rumoured that you will be contesting for the Pune Lok Sabha seat...

I have fought over 14 elections and I don’t think that I need to find a safe seat to contest from. This issue came up when a few non-political activists, including some industrialists, came to me and requested me to consider this option. They thought Pune is not being given the importance that it requires.

But my daughter [Supriya Sule] is contesting from Baramati which has the urban part of Pune in its fold, so I don’t think I need to contest.

The Congress and the NCP are yet to make any formal decision on an alliance for the Lok Sabha and Assembly seats in Maharashtra. What is the reason for this delay?

This is not correct. Congress president Rahul Gandhi and I have had three meetings. We have come to the conclusion to contest the elections jointly. This is the clear understanding between the chiefs of the Congress and the NCP.

We both have communicated this to State leaders and both parties will sit together and finalise the seat-sharing. The process will start in a week’s time. Party presidents will interfere only in the case of a serious conflict on the seats.

Looking back, do you think the decision to extend unilateral support to the BJP-led government in Maharashtra was wrong?

No. Our aim at that time was to keep the BJP and Shiv Sena apart. I do not know whether they will fight together now, but we are going to contest as a front comprising the Congress, the NCP, the Peasants and Workers Party of India (PWP), the Left and the Republican party.

Are you going to invite Prakash Ambedkar to the alliance?

I am not going to get involved in these things. That’s the job of the State leadership. Our involvement will only be limited to resolving any differences, on seat sharing, if they arise.

Will the Congress-NCP alliance be projecting a chief ministerial candidate in Maharashtra?

We will not project a chief ministerial candidate. We will work together, contest together, help each other and decide after elections.

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2021 1:09:06 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/interview/a-pre-election-mahagathbandhan-against-the-bjp-is-unlikely/article24323792.ece

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