Ahead of the Mumbai civic polls, Supriya Sule, NCP leader and Member of Parliament, and Mumbai NCP chief Sachin Ahir, in a free-wheeling chat with HT, spoke about their party’s failure to make inroads into Mumbai, the hypocrisy of the saffron partners, and how the Congress is a natural ally. “The BJP-Sena were partners-in-crime. How can all the corruption in the BMC be linked only to the Shiv Sena, and the BJP be completely clean?”, Sule said. Forget Shanghai and Singapore, Sule said her party would focus on first getting basic amenities in Mumbai right. She did so showcasing NCP-ruled civic bodies such as Pune, Pimpri-Chinchwad and Navi Mumbai. Ahir said the city first deserved attention on “gutter, water and meter”.
NCP has been in power for 15 years, but has failed to make inroads in the state’s capital.
Sule: Maybe, we haven’t put our best foot forward here. I would even be harsh on us and say, we were a bit slack. We had an alliance with Congress because of which there was a division of seats and certain areas, districts were left for our ally. In Mumbai, I really think we haven’t worked too much because we got so much support from elsewhere. I think we are changing now.
So, do you think an alliance with Congress for so many years has been a mistake?
Sule: It was not a mistake. We were together for 15 years and you can’t call that long a partnership a mistake. We (Congress-NCP) made these choices with our eyes open. There is a good and a bad side. But, one can’t say I didn’t grow when you have enjoyed power with your ally for 15 years. It is foolish to say that.
In the current scenario, with the BJP-Sena split, space for an opposition has reduced. Is there space left for Congress or NCP ?
Sule: This question upsets me. I am also a citizen of this city. This election cannot be only about bickering between parties calling each other names. One is calling the other corrupt and claims to give transparent governance but continues to share power with the same party in the state and Centre. What should I do as a citizen? After getting shocked and disappointed, who do I turn to? The city needs an alternative.
Does the split affect NCP ?
Sule: I don’t think it will make much of a difference. What I can say is BJP is equally responsible for all the corruption all these years. They were partners-in-crime. Why doesn’t BJP talk about corruption in BMC in the last 22 years? How can BJP be clean and all corruption be linked only to Sena ? And, then you can’t say my corporator may make money but I am clean. Some people say that. I don’t believe in this theory. If my corporator makes money, I am equally responsible.
Do you consider Congress as a natural ally? Why haven’t you tied up with it for Mumbai polls?
Sule: Yes, I think we are natural allies. We are happy to have a tie up but there has been no offer. We are professionals and don’t want to romance like others... so no love etc between us. In some other local bodies, there may be alliance with Congress.
Do you think NCP has realistic chances to win BMC polls?
Sule: We have to be optimistic. What does a realistic chance mean? In 2004, nobody thought we will come back to power but we did. Who would have thought in 1999 that six months after forming our party, we will come to power?
Why should Mumbaiites vote for NCP? What does it NCP offer?
Sule: In the three civic corporations we run — Pune, Pimpri Chinchwad, Navi Mumbai, we have delivered better than anyone else. We are asking for a mandate in BMC purely on merit by showcasing our efforts. I think Mumbai needs a change as the city is deteriorating.
Sachin Ahir: While we were in government, the party didn’t have departments like urban development through which we could have shown our commitment. Despite this, the city’s first sea bridge Bandra-Worli Sea link was implemented by MSRDC, our department. We legalised slums till 2000. The RERA (Real Estate Regulation Act) was our concept and we introduced it in the state legislature. We can also plan the city’s development, like we have done in Pune. Why is that people who were voted for by the city for 22 years failed to provide basic things? In Mumbai, we still struggle for basic facilities. This is not the city of our dreams. Mumbai needs basic amenities — gutter, metre, water.
What was done to strengthen NCP’s space in Mumbai after your split with Congress in 2014?
Ahir: We have been consistently raising issues and unearthed scandals. A PIL was filed on health issues in which the high court has passed strictures against BMC. Although our number was small in BMC, we tried to create our space. With only 13 corporators, NCP was declared number one in terms of performance by NGO ‘Praja’ that watches elected representatives.
You spoke of development formula used by NCP in other civic bodies. But solutions for Mumbai’s issues would be different.
Sule: Let’s start with the example of hospitals run by BMC. Despite getting funds, how many BMC hospitals are really made affordable in the last 30-40 years. In Pune, we have started maternity hospitals at the ward level that are small like Primary Health Centres in rural Maharashtra. PHC is a sustainable model and was proved effective. We have started a mother milk bank, the first in a corporation, for which we don’t need great infrastructure. Let’s be realistic. Shanghai-Singapore model is not going to come up in Mumbai but we can improve our schools, health care models, garbage management etc. There are ways to make this possible. In my constituency, three of 14 wards are zero-garbage wards. This was appreciated by the Centre. Similar models can be adopted in Mumbai, a very aware city. We need active citizen participation... It’s a city is bursting at its seems. We love to see tall building, but do we have a system to support it?
There is a perception NCP is the most corrupt political party. This has damaged your credibility. How do you plan to tackle this ?
Sule: I am glad you asked this question. I am going to demand evidence from people who are making these allegations. I know perception can’t be changed overnight, but I’m making a start by challenging it. I do not want to be known as a dirty politician because I am not. You say NCP is corrupt; ok I am willing to debate this, I do not take high morality like CM Devendra Fadnavis and Rahul Gandhi. If we are corrupt, where’s the proof? Find the money and it should not be so difficult in this digital age. Find that one politician, firm who has given us this money. I haven’t kept the money under the bed. If it is in some bank account, trace it and I’ll give you a cheque of that amount and donate it to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund...I never make allegations unless I have substantial evidence.
If either Sena or BJP emerges as the single largest party and need support, would NCP be comfortable as opposition or would it support these parties?
Sule: We are not thinking about that. We are only thinking about winning. We are here to pass with good marks, why do we think like this?
Will you be contesting all seats?
Ahir: Right now, we are concentrating on 123 seats. The party has candidates for 180-odd seats. People are also coming up for the rest of the lot. But, we just don’t want to contest for the sake of contesting polls. We are selecting candidates on their merit. This is the reason, for the first time, we have chosen well-educated candidates from different professions such as doctors, advocates, civil engineer . We are trying to accommodate people that the city actually needs, and not those who are politically connected.
Your voting percentage in the last polls was just 6.56% and you won only 13 seats. How can you stake claim as a probable winner?
Sule: At least we have to reach out to the people. We are very realistic. When we contest Lok Sabha polls, we never said the PM will be from NCP. Here too, we are not saying Mayor will be from us. But, we want to perform better. If I fail this time, at least I will try to pass next time. Why should I say, I am failing, so leave it?
Assuming NCP emerges the single largest party, between BJP and Sena, which one would you like to share power with, if you have to?
Sule: There is a difference of ideology so... But one thing I must say, both parties are diluting their ideologies. Like, no more objecting to English, no more objecting to Valentine’s Day. They are becoming more and more like Congress and NCP.
What will the impact of demonetisation be on these elections?
Sule: There is a serious impact in rural India. What worries me more is the disparity it has created. There is still a perception that it hit the richest. But has the cash flow improved? For many of us, it may not matter, because we already have had credit cards but it has hit people at the bottom of the pyramid. They still have hopes that the money will get deposited in their Jan Dhan accounts. Prime Minister has been saying this will clear up the system, but the question is — was demonetisation really needed when the economy was doing so well?
You supported BJP when it came to power in 2014 and that perception about you continues that you may align with BJP in the future.
Sule: There is a perception because there have been actions...Mr Pawar recently was awarded Padmavibhushan... earlier the PM came to Pune shared the dais with Mr Pawar and said, “I have been hand-held by Mr Pawar in the early days in politics”. These are personal relations that sometimes come at a political cost. But, despite that, our first choice for an alliance will be Congress because we have naturally worked together. However badly the Congress treats Mr Pawar, his heart is with the Congress.
Would you like to be the chief minister of Maharashtra?
Sule: In 2019, 2024 and 2029, the next three elections I will only ask for Baramati Lok Sabha ticket. I love my job. I genuinely enjoy being a Parliamentarian.
There are rumours about Pawar being a Presidential nominee?
Sule: We have only 11 Members of Parliament (MPs) and we have realistic aspirations. So, I have no idea where these rumours started from.