'No support for Sonia or BJP'

Print edition : September 11, 1999

In the first 12 days of his election campaign in Maharashtra, Sharad Pawar, leader of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), toured more than 200 villages and towns by helicopter. His speeches dealt with Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin or, as he punn ed in his speech, the videshi haath (foreign hand); the failure of the BJP-led government to detect the infiltration in Kargil early; the price rise; and the plight of farmers and Dalits under saffron rule in Maharashtra. Pawar's public meetings attracted only fair-sized crowds but this veteran of 32 year s of public life remained unfazed: "It's not the size but the response that matters". Pawar spoke to Lyla Bavadam about the NCP's prospects:

What is your assessment of the post-election prospects of the parties other than the Congress(I) and the BJP-led alliance?

VIVEK BENDRE

It is too early to say. But I can say that we are not going to associate with the BJP and we are not going to support or associate with Sonia Gandhi. One has to see if there is any other alternative.

Which un-aligned parties will be important at the national level after the elections?

Unless and until one knows about the strength, this has no meaning. For instance, in 1996 the Janata Dal had some 40 MPs. In 1998, the Janata Dal had six MPs. So the party might be important but ultimately its performance in the election is most importan t.

How would you rate the Bahujan Samaj Party(BSP), for instance?

I don't think it will improve its position. In the last Parliament, it stood sixth or fifth in terms of numbers. It will be somewhere near that.

How will the BJP's alliance with the Telugu Desam party of N. Chandrababu Naidu work out in Andhra Pradesh?

There are two problems that the TDP will face if it is going to associate itself with the BJP. First, the State has a substantial population of minorities, especially in Telengana. Secondly, in the election process the People's War Group plays an importa nt role. These two sections will never support anybody who hobnobs with the BJP. So that might affect him. People say that the BJP has 16 per cent of the vote, and if that information is correct, then that 16 per cent can change the entire position.

Have you made any specific plans if the polls are indecisive? The NCP will be in great demand in a situation like that.

Let us see. Two things are clear. No Sonia. No BJP. We will be happy to sit in the Opposition.

Sonia Gandhi has often said that the interests of the country are dear to her. Will she agree not to take up the prime ministership in national interest?

If the people are not ready to accept (her), what can she do? If other parties are not ready to support... at least Mulayam Singh and I are clear that we will not support...

Do you think the Congress(I) will be willing to sacrifice Sonia Gandhi if the NCP helps it form the government?

The Congress will do anything. I know that a sizable section in the Congress does not want Sonia as Prime Minister.

Why did they not come with you?

They had no courage, and secondly anyone who is interested in entering Parliament has to see how they will be able to do so. I have to accept and admit one thing. I have not created that kind of strength in a number of States as yet where I will be able to bring someone into Parliament. My organisational set-up is not yet built up. It's only a few months since the NCP was started on June 10. It has not been possible for me to build up the party in different States and that is why people stay away. If th ey want to contest elections, they would prefer a safer party. A number of people have expressed their views, that they are not happy with Sonia Gandhi, that they are waiting for the appropriate time...

Have any Congress members in Maharashtra indicated that they will shift to the NCP if you prove stronger?

In Maharashtra there is a sharp division and a bitter fight.

Whom would you find acceptable in the Congress as a prime ministerial candidate?

Why should we disclose that at this juncture? First of all, why should we accept anyone from the Congress? Why should they not accept our candidate?

You wish to be Prime Minister?

I will not get 270 seats... Let us see what happens. If a person like Sonia Gandhi expects to be Prime Minister after 13 months of experience in public life... at least I have been getting elected continuously for 32 years.

In the 1998 Lok Sabha elections in Maharashtra you were largely responsible for the Congress(I) doing much better than it did in 1996. Do you think you can work the same magic for the NCP?

We will get a majority in the State... 30 to 35 seats in the Lok Sabha. There is of course the problem of money. The Shiv Sena-BJP and the Congress have access to lots of money. We have no money but we've got the people. Our workers plead with us. They s ay, "Saheb, just hold one sabha". The people are determined to defeat the Sena-BJP. This factor and our alliance will get us victory.

Are you isolated in politics right now? You had earlier said that everyone was gunning for you. At public meetings leaders as diverse as Pramod Mahajan, Sonia Gandhi and Bal Thackeray have had something to say about you.

I'm not isolated. On the contrary, I seem to be in a good position if they are all talking about me.

Is the NCP isolated in terms of money power, organisational abilities?

Monetarily, yes. We are a very young party.

Which are the large interest groups interested in supporting the NCP?

The farming community, the middle class and Dalits.

Corporate support?

Not so much. I have a personal relationship with many corporate houses but we've been continuously asking them to help. The 1995 elections, then 1996, then 1998, now 1999... one feels ashamed even to ask.

Have you got any assistance this time from corporate houses?

By and large, no.

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