Union Agriculture Minister and Nationalist Congress Party supremo Sharad Pawar flies from Aurangabad to New Delhi to attend the weekly Cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on October 1.
Late in the day, he returns to Maharashtra, flying in to Nagpur and immediately taking a helicopter to Hingna, then Morshi in Amravati district.
When the public meeting in Morshi ends, the sun has gone down and aviation rules do not permit travel by chopper after dark. Pawar gets into a Mitsubishi Pajero to cover the 50 km or so to Badnera.
But by now he is running a fever and he turns to his campaign manager and asks, “How soon can we get there? Please keep the public meeting short. I have a long day ahead tomorrow.’’
“This time I am under tremendous pressure from my wife to cut down on my campaigning. She reminds me every day that I am entering my seventieth year. And 70 is not like being 30 when I used to hold at least six meetings every day,’’ he says ruefully.
But when Pawar finally steps on the stage at Badnera, he breathes fire at the opposition. His theme, as ever, is to highlight the urban moorings of the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance.
“Uddhav [Thackeray] went to one village and asked the farmers the procurement price they were getting for kapashi [cotton]. Then he went to another village and asked the farmers what the procurement price was for parati [cotton again] … he does not even know that kapashi and parati are the same thing.’’
There is more. The rising food prices are held up as an urban issue. Pawar tells the farmers: “The Vajpayee government had fixed the procurement price of wheat at Rs 490 per quintal. We have raised it to Rs 1,080 per quintal. Of course, that brought the price up for consumers but we always have the farmers’ welfare in mind.’’
The crowd that has waited hours to hear him applauds.
With less than ten days to close of campaigning, Pawar speaks to Hindustan Times about the October 13 state Assembly elections. Excerpts:
The NCP was demanding 124 seats out of 288. How and why did you agree to just 114?
We did not want to break the alliance [with the Congress] at any cost. Under the circumstances that compromise had to come from us.
There were constant suggestions from Congress leader Vilasrao Deshmukh that there should be no pre-poll alliance with the NCP and even Chief Minister Ashok Chavan suggested that the NCP should merge with the Congress.
What was the outcome of all that rhetoric? I knew there would be no outcome; that the alliance would continue; so there was no point in adding to all that hot air. In any case, I am going to be campaigning in Nanded [Chavan’s home turf] at Ashok’s request and even he will be campaigning for some of our candidates. So there is no substance to all that.
In 1995, rebel candidates who won helped the Sena-BJP form the government. Will it happen this time too, as there are a lot of rebels in the fray from all parties?
In 1995, all those 45 rebels were from the Congress and so they could act as a cohesive group. That’s not the case this time. There is nothing to bind the rebels together even if they win in large numbers. So we have no fear. The Congress-NCP will indeed form the government.
Even the NCP could not contain rebellion.
Blame it on the Election Commission. Firstly it did not give us enough time to talk to rebels — we have had barely ten days between withdrawals and campaign close. Then again, the EC just took a map of Maharashtra and drew lines for the delimitation process on the basis of geography. They did not consider the demographics, the topography or even the communication between various parts of the constituencies. That has resulted in many legitimate claimants for each seat and we could give the ticket to only one.
Then, again, we told the Congress that last election’s rebels who had joined our parties should not be considered for seats. That would be seen as a reward for rebellion. They did not listen and what I feared has happened — last election’s legitimate candidates from both parties have become this year’s rebels. It is difficult to convince them to give up their claims.
Will you readmit them to your party if they win?
I will not encourage rebellion in any manner!
The drought is a major issue at these elections...
Not any more. The second round of monsoon was generous to us. It did not pour continuously — it rained then paused for a week. Then rained another day and returned after ten days and so on. That has helped to prepare the soil for maize, corn, wheat, cotton, pulses and oilseeds in a big way. Thus the second crop should be good. What we have definitely lost, though, is paddy in a large measure because of the failure of the first round of monsoon. But we will make it up to the farmers.
But rising prices are a major concern...
Only in the urban areas. The Congress-NCP have been in power for a decade. Nine of those ten years were good ones. Only this year the drought has troubled us a little and we also raised the procurement prices for crops, so to some extent the urban consumer had to pay up for that.
In 2004, the NCP got more seats than the Congress but gave up its claim to the chief ministership. Will you insist on your own CM if you win more seats this time?
We will do nothing that will weaken either the government or the alliance with the Congress.