Is veteran leader Sharad Pawar taking a swing at becoming prime minister in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, yet again? After several failed attempts in the last two-and-half decades, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief has once again set the ball rolling to form a coalition of “like-minded parties” to challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). First, he personally invited party leaders from the Congress, Trinamool Congress, CPI, CPI(M), National Conference, Samajwadi Party and more, to attend the “Save the Constitution” march in Mumbai on January 26, then he invited party leaders to another meeting at his residence in the Capital. But Pawar was stopped in his tracks by his ambitious coalition partners who did not send emissaries this time, like the TMC and SP. He was politely told that since United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi still presided over the coalition, it should be the Congress that should take the lead in cobbling up an alternative coalition for the coming general election.
In a free-wheeling interview, Pawar is candid about the Congress party’s dominance and the role his party can play. Excerpts:
It’s for the first time since May 2014, after Modi came to power, that there has been a serious attempt to bring secular parties together. How did it happen?
In December, when a BJP Union minister from Karnataka declared it was his duty to make substantial changes to the constitution, we thought it’s time to bring together like-minded parties to save the constitution. There was a rally being planned by member of parliament Raju Shetty from the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghtana and NCP MLC Jitendra in Mumbai, and I decided to call leaders from CPI, CPM, Congress, SP, Trinamool, National Conference. There were 14 main political parties that attended the rally. It was a great success and we got a good response.
It was decided that we should meet at the national level too, and I informally called a meeting here in Delhi where the Congress and other parties also joined in.
But some parties that attended the Mumbai rally did not send their representatives this time?
Yes, it was suggested that since Sonia Gandhi was still head of the UPA, she should take the initiative and so, she invited 16-17 parties, and all of them attended the meet. We discussed the national situation and the failures of the Modi government; but there was no definite understanding nor did we come to any conclusion that we should contest the election together.
But recent reports say that NCP and Congress have decided to ally?
Nothing has been finalised yet, but, yes, on February 6, the Maharashtra Congress state leadership and my party state leadership came to an understanding that we should work together; but the final decision will be taken by the Congress president and me, in Delhi. After all, whenever we’ve come together, we have always succeeded in forming a government.
Why did you both contest separately the last time, both in the Lok Sabha and assembly polls in 2014, at the cost of losing both elections?
There were issues in Maharashtra… unfortunately, the then chief minister, Prithviraj Chavan… I don’t want to reopen the subject. However, while both parties were in discussions – we’d had one or two meetings – the Congress released its list of candidates before we came to any conclusion. We were forced to go it alone.
It must be said though that while we got 41 seats and the Congress got 42 seats in the Assembly; in the Lok Sabha, we got four seats and the Congress got only two seats. In a way, the elections have shown the strength of the two parties.
Has the Congress always treated you like junior partner?
Yes, they have always believed they are No 1 though we have also beat them in elections. In the 2004 state elections, we got 71 seats, the Congress got 69 seats but we still accepted a Congress chief minister despite our legitimate right as the single largest party. We wanted the alliance to continue. In fact, the NCP has always sacrificed for the alliance.
In the recent Gujarat state election, the Congress and NCP fought separately again and, as P. Chidambaram said, it cost the Congress at least four to five seats?
My assessment is that the Congress lost 14 seats but yet again, before we reached any conclusion, the Congress state leadership released the candidate list and denied even our sitting MLA his constituency. The NCP wanted only nine seats.
Are there any regrets?
No, why should we regret? We were ready. Anyway, we have now said let’s forget what happened in the past, and the Maharashtra state leadership of both parties have at least reached an understanding to work together; the modalities will be finalised in Delhi.
How do you foresee the prospects for a national secular alliance in 2019?
Something similar happened in 2004. (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee was the most popular prime minister at the time, though he was not happy with the way things were going… But who would have believed Manmohan Singh would become prime minister? I believe if like-minded forces come together and work, I will not be surprised if we collectively form the government.
How would you assess Modi’s position today?
As of today, Modi has a comfortable position in Parliament, his party is in power in many states. But the situation emerging is there is a big change in the mood of the farming community, the middle class, minorities, even youth. The Modi government talks about giving employment, but as Chidambaram showed in Parliament, there are lakhs of government job vacancies in both Centre and states. Naturally, young people are unhappy with this government, they want a viable alternative and if we succeed to provide and create confidence among this section, then we have a good chance.
But Modi has threatened to throw every corrupt politician into prison, in a bid to break prospective alliances. Just like he did with Lalu Prasad Yadav?
Modi is a vindictive politician. In my many years in public life, I have seen people don’t like vindictive politics. When Morarjibhai was prime minister and he got Indira Gandhi arrested and sent her to prison, it changed the people’s mood against his government, even though the Janata Party had a comfortable majority. That one action changed its political destiny.
Also read: BJP in 2019 Would Be Down by Minimum 100 Seats From 280 in 2014: Shiv Sena Leader Sanjay Raut
Would you call it politics of blackmail? Also, today, people may admire a leader who takes on corrupt leaders?
I have used the term, vindictive politics; and people will reject it even today.
Will Nitish Kumar be part of your coalition?
I don’t think so. He’s with the BJP.
Would the new coalition be called UPA 3?
I cannot say as we have not discussed it with any party.
If NDA gets less than 250 seats, will all allies come on board? Will there be a pre-poll alliance?
We are not certain yet. My desire would like to see NCP, Congress, SP, BSP. However, Mayawati does not believe in pre-poll pacts. I would be happy to discuss with Mulayam Singh Yadav, even the Left. But I can’t do it alone, it has to be decided collectively.
What about Shiv Sena? Could it be part of coalition? Its leader Uddhav Thackeray has been going soft on many issues?
Shiv Sena will contest separately, and no, it can never be part of this alliance. Neither NCP nor Congress will accept it.
You once said the Congress was open to aligning with Shiv Sena?
Yes, at the local level, not at the national level. Anyway, the Sena left the NDA because it wants to go it alone. It’s a good move as the Sena can show its strength to the BJP.
What about Mamata Banerjee? She did not send an emissary to the meeting held at your residence in Delhi?
I don’t know about Mamata Banerjee. Ms Gandhi took the initiative, she convened the first meeting, we have to see how it unfolds.
How do you get over your regional differences? How do state politics overcome national ambitions? Like, say, in West Bengal?
I would say the regional situation is important. It is not going to be easy. Of course, an alliance between Trinamool, Cong and Left is impossible in Bengal, but why not in Madhya Pradesh or Uttar Pradesh? So, in MP, the Congress which is the major party should take the initiative and give seats to other like-minded parties. Similarly, in West Bengal, Trinamool, which is the major party, should take the initiative and give seats to parties like NCP, Congress etc.
How will you choose a leader? Will the leader of the single largest party become prime minister?
As in 2004, we came together post-poll, and formed a government for 10 years. Yes, the single largest party will take the lead in choosing the leader.
Will you accept Rahul Gandhi as PM? You had once said he’s immature?
Where’s the question of taking names, I have not discussed this with anyone as yet. Unless and until we reach an understanding, then only will a name emerge for leadership.
Vrinda Gopinath is a senior journalist.