There is a spring in Sharad Pawar's step, and his body language exudes self-assurance. It is the confidence of a man who knows he has bounced back into the political mainstream. Nine months ago, when Pawar was routed in the Congress(I) presidential election, he was virtually written off by many people in the party. And even after the Lok Sabha elections were announced in December 1997 and the campaign got under way, not many people in the Congress(I) considered him a front-runner for the party leadership in the post-election scenario. The names that did the rounds were those of Sitaram Kesri, Arjun Singh, N.D. Tiwari, and, to a lesser extent, Manmohan Singh. But Pawar was undeterred. He concentrated on strengthening his support base in his home State of Maharashtra and carefully fashioned an election strategy to take on the might of the ruling Shiv Sena-BJP combine. He made peace with his erstwhile detractors in the party and then built an alliance with with the Republican Party of India (RPI) and the Samajwadi Party. The spectacular showing of the Congress(I) in Maharashtra as a result of these has made him one of the most powerful leaders in the party now and a strong contender for the leadership of the Congress(I) Parliamentary Party (CPP). Venkitesh Ramakrishnan met Pawar for an interview on March 8. Excerpts:
What were the reasons for the Congress(I)'s spectacular showing in Maharashtra?
There are four factors that contributed to our success - Soniaji's campaign, the unity within the Congress(I), the alliance with other secular parties like the RPI and the S.P. and, finally, the resentment against the BJP-Shiv Sena Government in the State.
Even before the polls were completed the Maharashtra Congress(I) knew that it would give the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance a drubbing. We were not surprised (by the result). In fact, we expected 40 seats, but we lost a couple of seats by small margins - 153 votes and 1,100 votes.
The success in Maharashtra could not be repeated in many other States, including Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, although Sonia Gandhi campaigned more extensively there.
Whether it is a college examination or an electoral battle, theory and practicals have to be given equal importance and taken seriously. Theory is the backgrounder, which in electoral battles is the combat readiness of the party organisation. In electoral battles, this accounts for 60 per cent of the marks. Campaigning, even by such a charismatic figure as Soniaji, can help you get only 40 per cent marks. It is for the party organisation to get the remaining 60 per cent. We were able to do this. Many other State organisations could not do it. That is the difference.
How do you analyse the poll results as a whole?
The BJP claims that it has the mandate to rule. But this is not true. The fact is that this is a fractured verdict with a mandate for no (single) party. The country has voted for a coalition government, and that too one that depends on post-poll alliances. Even the BJP has to rely on post-poll alliances to work up a majority.
You have emerged as a major contender for the CPP leadership. But there is also talk in Congress(I) circles that attempts are being made by other leaders like Madhavrao Scindia to forge a broad anti-Pawar alliance within the party.
All this is media speculation. I do not want to comment on this. The Congress Working Committee has left the choice of the leader to Soniaji. She has consulted party MPs and will take a suitable decision. And everybody will accept this.
Some people believe that asking Sonia Gandhi to decide the CPP leader is a ploy to sabotage your chances.
I cannot respond to such speculative questions. The fact is that the CWC, of which I am a member, has left the decision to Soniaji.
But don't you think that considering the Congress(I)'s success in Maharashtra and also the fact that many United Front constituents like the S.P. find you more acceptable than others, you should be given a chance?
I suppose the U.F. constituents have no role in the selection of our leader. Soniaji will consider all factors and take a correct decision.
What is the status of the discussions between the U.F. and the Congress(I) on the possibility of forming a non-BJP government?
It is too early to say anything about this. Negotiations are continuing. One cannot rule out any possibility. Even if the BJP gets the invitation to form the government, miracles can happen.