Recently, rumours were doing the rounds of Maharashtra’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) tying up with the BJP before the 2024 Lok Sabha election. The buzz became louder as the Enforcement Directorate raided the house of NCP leader Hasan Mushrif in a money laundering case in January 2023, leading to whispers of NCP members being subjected to political pressure. In an interview with Frontline, Supriya Sule, who represents Baramati for the NCP in the Lok Sabha, ruled out any such alliance and focussed on a possible nationwide opposition alliance with a common minimum programme. Excerpts:
The preparation for the 2024 Lok Sabha election has started across political parties. Where do you see the NCP in this crucial battle?
Lok Sabha candidates have started working all over India. Candidates who lost last time are also on the job now. So, it is not just the NCP but every party that is working.
Are you saying that the NCP has started identifying candidates?
Of course. Not just us, every party is doing it. Barely one year is left.
Recent reports and developments suggest that the NCP is getting closer to the BJP. Will it stay in the opposition camp or switch sides?
“The NCP is getting close to the BJP” is the story I have been hearing since 2014. We are in 2023.
Alliances are not formed in a haphazard manner. Unfortunately, India has seen much disruption, which is an issue of concern for me. I am not talking about what’s happening in the State or to just you or me. I believe that such disruptions hurt growth and development for everyone. Everybody needs a stable government and that needs a good team.
I feel that Maharashtra doesn’t have enough Ministers. There isn’t a single female Minister in the Cabinet. The State government does not have even a full Cabinet. I think we need to take politics and our responsibilities seriously. That is what power has meant to me. It is a tool to serve the people.
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Actually, my question was regarding the possibility of an alliance with the BJP. In politics for the last 15 years, you have been straightforward and vocal on a number of issues. But this time you are not giving a clear answer. Will the NCP go with the BJP or not?
There is no dialogue right now. It is a hypothetical conversation. Right now, the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) is in an alliance. I am tired of the stories being planted [about the NCP]. There are other stories which need to be highlighted. Like the Kharghar incident [where 15 persons died of heat stroke while attending a government function]. Look at the course of events: the Kharghar incident took place and stories about the NCP also started doing the rounds. Was that a coincidence? These speculative stories are being spread to divert attention from real issues.
The talk about the NCP joining hands with the BJP started because of certain incidents, like NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s interview on April 7 to NDTV where he said he is against the idea of a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) scrutinising the Adani controversy. This is being read as a break in opposition unity.
Yes, but that is not new. We said the same thing in Parliament six weeks before the interview. We put our position in front of all opposition parties during one of the meetings too. Everyone was aware of it. You noticed it when the interview came up, but you ignored what we said in Parliament. And what has the JPC got to do with opposition alliance?
“I take this topic of investigation by agencies very seriously... It is a matter of concern... I used to call it ICE—for IT (Income Tax Department), CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation), ED (Enforcement Directorate). People get “ICEd” in this country.”Supriya SuleNCP MP, Baramati
Nineteen opposition parties are supporting the idea…
So what? We can have an opinion. This is a democracy, not an authoritarian state where everybody has to speak in the same voice.
But the Congress is trying to make it into a political issue, so this is also political.
The Congress has an opinion and we respect the Congress’ opinion. The whole idea of a vibrant democracy is about agreeing to disagree.
There was another incident. Your party supported the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) government in Nagaland. The NDPP government is stable; it already has enough numbers. Why did the NCP have to extend support? This was seen as a gesture of getting closer to the BJP, which is an NDPP alliance partner.
Who is the Chief Minister there? From which party?
Neiphiu Rio from the NDPP, of course.
Then what does it have to do with the BJP? The BJP does not have a Chief Minister there. We supported the government under the NDPP. The BJP is part of the government. If the MLAs have certain ideas for development, and if the head of the government is not a BJP member, then what’s wrong with supporting the government?
Let us put it in perspective. In Nagaland the NCP was trying to test the waters. And once that was done, the NCP started this whole saga in Maharashtra. Do you see it this way? Do you connect these dots?
No, I don’t. I get very little time for my constituency work. I don’t have time for this.
Let’s come to Maharashtra. We know that Ajit Pawar has given a clarification saying he will stay with the NCP till the end. But there is a perception, strengthened by this incident, that there is a strong view within your party to have ties with the BJP.
“The MVA in Maharashtra had a common minimum programme. At the national level, too, we should have one.”Supriya SuleNCP MP, Baramati
Yes, many MLAs, five to 10, have said that they are with Pawar and will do what he wants them to do. Do you believe this might explode ahead of the Lok Sabha election?
It is a matter of interpretation. There is a painting on the wall. You and I may see it differently. How do you know that 10 MLAs are saying they will go with Ajit Pawar? Has Ajit Pawar ever said this is what he wants to do?
Then how do you interpret it?
I interpret it as gossip. If a television channel comes to me and asks, he kay karnar (What will he do?), I will say, how can I know that? I do not want to get into an argument over this. I am accountable to my stakeholders, well-wishers, voters, party workers. I do not reply to questions about who said what.
This is becoming an issue because in the middle of the Ajit Pawar controversy, you said there will be two political blasts, one in Mumbai, one in Delhi.
It was a joke. I don’t know how the media reported it as news. Somebody told [me] that XYZ person has said there will be a big political blast in Mumbai. To this, I said why one blast, there should be two, one in Delhi, one in Mumbai. That is all. I am shocked and disappointed that jokes run as news in mainstream media. It was blown out of proportion.
The reasons why there are talks of the NCP joining the BJP are many. One is the use of Central agencies against NCP members; for the last six to eight years, your family members have faced raids by agencies. So, to avoid harassment, the Pawar family could think of changing its political alignment.
I take this topic of investigation by agencies very seriously because this is not gossip. It is a matter of concern, and I have spoken about this several times, even in Parliament. I used to call it ICE—for IT (Income Tax Department), CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation), ED (Enforcement Directorate). People get “ICEd” in this country. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power and said “ Na khaoonga, na khane dunga” (Neither will I take bribe, nor let others do it) , I was really happy because somebody in his position was talking of curbing corruption. But now I am concerned about these agencies targeting people. A lot of people I know have come and cried about the challenges they were going through emotionally; their families were traumatised. Then they moved sides and now they are feeling better. They have told me that they get good sleep now. So, it is a matter of concern that people feel comfortable just because they joined the BJP. This means that institutions themselves are at stake here.
Do you think that this pressure on the NCP is forcing you to rethink the MVA alliance? Or that the use of agencies could be the key to the future of the MVA?
I am not talking just about our family or the NCP. The same thing happened to Sanjay Raut [Rajya Sabha MP from Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray)]. In Maharashtra, I don’t know what the BJP wants. They have a government, they have numbers. What else do they want?
When people talk of opposition unity at the national level, they also expect a proper alternative vision on economic, social fronts, for example. Do you think it is time for opposition parties to discuss these issues? Because people are not going to vote just because you are against someone.
Absolutely. When we meet in Delhi, we discuss this. We keep saying that there should be a common minimum programme. The MVA in Maharashtra had a common minimum programme. At the national level, too, we should have one. We will have to take the issue to the people through rallies and tell them why we want power.
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The opposition stood together when Rahul Gandhi was disqualified as MP. Your party MP from Lakshadweep, Mohammed Faizal, faced a similar case. What is your opinion?
What happened to Gandhi and Faizal is unfortunate. Fortunately, the people of Lakshadweep stood with Faizal. I thank every supporter of the NCP as well as the courts. Politics cannot be vindictive.
The NCP recently lost its national party status. The Trinamool Congress lost it, too. But the Trinamool is going to challenge the Election Commission’s decision in court. What about the NCP?
We haven’t discussed a legal battle. I am not sure whether we will either. I think we will work harder in many States to gain the status again. That’s the way to do it.
In Maharashtra, how do you see the future of the MVA? Will it continue as now?
Why won’t it? When it was formed, people used to say it won’t function for more than three years. Had these people not gone away [Eknath Shinde pulling out of Shiv Sena), we would have completed the term. The NCP was written off [in the 2019 Maharashtra Assembly election]. Everyone was saying the party was finished. But politics is not just a game of numbers. It’s about people, our connections to people. Ultimately people will decide our future.