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‘Need to think of party’s future’

business Updated: Aug 19, 2009 01:48 IST
HT Correspondent

The Congress wants the Nationalist Congress Party to return and merge with the party it left some years ago. Is the NCP ready for it?

Party leader and civil aviation minister Praful Patel evaded a direct reply on Tuesday. But he said there was a need for introspection in the NCP in view of its failure to do well in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls.

Patel’s views, expressed during an interaction with senior editors at Hindustan Times, came against the backdrop of recurring demands for the NCP’s merger as the issue of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin — on which the party split from the Congress in 1999 — is no longer relevant.
Praful Patel during an interaction with Hindustan Times’s editors at HT House in Delhi on Tuesday. Raj K Raj/ht photos

“Yes, the foreign origin is not an issue,” Patel said.

Asked for a response to the suggestion — made by Vilasrao Deshmukh and Digvijay Singh -- of a merger with the Congress, Patel said, “That’s why I’m asking for an introspection…We’ve an identity of our own.”

Congress leaders have not said it openly, but in calling for a merger they are trying to play on the uncertainty that may grip the NCP should Sharad Pawar hand over the party’s reins to daughter Supriya Sule.

“Sule or the dynastic factor is not an issue with us,” Patel said to a question. “She is one of the upcoming leaders of the party. Nobody expects us to work under her.”

Patel added there was no clear or established hierarchy in the NCP.

If it comes to the crunch, will he opt for the NCP or the Congress? “I’m an NCP minister…Let’s break for lunch,” he said, laughing.

But before lunch, Patel noted that the NCP had made progress in Maharashtra and some other states. He said the vote share of the NCP and the Congress in poll-bound Maharashtra was almost the same.

“The handling of the coalition in Maharashtra would be an indicator of things,” he said while assessing NCP-Congress relations.

Though polls for the 288-member assembly are due in October, the two parties are yet to start seat-sharing talks. “It’s late already,” he said, adding that if the two contested separately, they would be handing over the state to the BJP-Shiv Sena combine.

At the Centre, he said, the NCP had been a responsible ally. It did little to embarrass the ruling Congress, with which it is temperamentally on the same wavelength, including on issues such as economic reforms and foreign policy. Even on the contentious Indo-Pak joint statement, the party saw no reason to make it an issue after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh offered a clarification.

If there is a problem or a communication gap, it is about the Congress’s refusal to give the NCP seats outside Maharashtra during Lok Sabha polls or while making gubernatorial appointments. “We wish we got more space in such appointments,” he said.

Asked about Pawar’s reported prime-ministerial ambitions, Patel said, “Every leader has ambitions. But you’ve to match them with reality. You must have the numbers.”

And with the numbers the NCP has, it cannot expect to be in the driver’s seat.