In candid interview, veteran Congress leader talks about how the unlikely alliance came together – and its future plans
Geetanjali Minhas | January 14, 2020 | Mumbai
Prithviraj Chavan, a senior Congress leader and former Maharashtra chief minister, is the key architect of the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) alliance that came to power after the three-day government of the BJP, supported by Ajit Pawar of NCP, fell apart just before the supreme court ordered an open ballot floor test. In a conversation with Geetanjali Minhas of Governance Now, Chavan speaks on why he did not take up the speaker’s post and why sometimes in politics a decision has to be taken through the lesser of the problematic situations.
There were reports that you would be given the assembly speaker’s post in MVA government. What happened?
I was offered the speaker’s post, but before that senior Congress leaders met here and discussed that since the Congress party was getting the speaker’s post, who should get it. Being a three-party government, the speaker’s post would be critical and also there was always a threat of split in a party in which case the speaker has to adjudicate. My name and Ashok Chavan-ji’s name came up. Both of us were not very keen, so we suggested Nana Patole’s name. Later motivated reports were spread by many people that the NCP was opposing my name. But then Mr Sharad Pawar himself called me one morning saying that there were rumours that NCP was not very keen on giving me the speaker’s post but that was not true. He said to me that ‘if your party nominates you, I would be very happy to work with you and support you.’ I was anyways not very keen because I see the post as a non-political job and my ability to take political positions or to criticise the government will be constrained. I conveyed my personal decision to my party. It also signals that you are moving out of active politics. It is not necessary, nor desirable, that at any cost you should get something.
You are a key architect of the MVA formation. How did this unusual alliance come together?
I don’t call myself the architect. Yes, I played my role. In Delhi people were very surprised and shocked that ‘how can the Congress party ally with a party clearly with a communal tag’. We had to convince the high command and argue strongly that Mr Devendra Fadanavis was behaving in such a manner in the last five years that his sole objective was of finishing all the opposition space. Forty people were spirited away from the Congress and NCP by coercion and threat with his favourite slogan of ‘Saam, Dam, Dand, Bhed’ – he actually implemented that. We bore the brunt in western Maharashtra more than anybody else because most western Maharashtra people have built institutions – be it cooperative sugar mills, dairies, banks, educational institutions, which cannot survive without the CM’s direct or benign support. But here the CM used all his power and authority to finish off these institutions and when it is a matter of survival within politics and preserving your institutions many people chose to buckle under the pressure. Forty sitting MLAs and MPs being made to forcibly switch sides in a matter of two months is not a joke. He had already started projecting himself as No. 3 in the BJP and if this person had returned to [power] for another full five year term he would have gone to town finishing all opposition voice.
Interestingly this is exactly the position we were in five years back with 42 seats and minority government when Mr Fadnavis formed the government with Uddhav Thackeray. At that time too he had proposed to me to form the government along with Shiv Sena, NCP and the Congress but we didn’t accept. Earlier we had worked with BJP during Vajpayee’s government and we had seen Shiv Sena’s govt and it was like any other government. But what was happening now was something else. That’s why we said, no more. We cannot have this thinking. My concern was not to have such a fascist-minded chief minister to continue in power again. The opportunity fell in our lap when Uddhav Thackeray said he was deceived. This is exactly what I argued, that this is not an opportunity we had not expected.
Secondly, in politics you have to sometimes find out your adversary No. 1 and it is clearly BJP and sometimes you a have to take a decision through the lesser of the problematic situations. We argued very strongly and fortunately Congress president Sonia Gandhi agreed though she was reluctant and not very comfortable. After that the court battle followed and it was only because of the court battle that we were able to come [to power]. It was a classic landmark decision and I had publicly demanded that a floor test should be conducted by the protem speaker in public scrutiny and televised. If the speaker was chosen by secret ballot, anything could happen. I was particularly very keen that this [BJP] government should not come back again. It completely murdered democracy in Maharashtra. We are successful now. There is MVA government. Let’s see what happens.
There has been much scepticism about the alliance due to differences in ideologies.
There are not three but actually two ideologies as NCP and the Congress belong to the same stock. We have been working together since 1999 and also had a pre-poll alliance. With Shiv Sena we have not worked earlier in a big way. There have been instances where we collaborated with Shiv Sena in early days when Balasaheb Thackeray had campaigned for Banatwala of the Indian Union Muslim League [in the 1970s]. He had also supported our candidature of Pratibha Patil and Pranab Mukherjee [for the post of the president of India]. If you look at the genesis of Shiv Sena they had started with the ‘Sons of the Soil’ campaign. And we thought we could work with the new leadership of Shiv Sena. Technically it’s a three-party alliance with two ideologies.
Are there any mechanisms to resolve any possible differences while implementing the common minimum programme (CMP)?
We have a pre-election common manifesto of the Congress-NCP and a manifesto of Shiva Sena. We compared the two manifestos to see if there is anything that falls afoul of our ideologies and we did not find anything which was very objectionable. So within the parameters of our manifestos, we said these are the broad parameters we will work on. Of course, now with the CMP agenda of governance it is not a pre-poll manifesto. There will be a coordination committee of three parties and day-to-day and policy issues will be discussed.
In portfolio allocation, key ministries have been given to Shiv Sena and NCP whereas the Congress has received comparatively insignificant berths. What will be its impact on the alliance?
Initially Delhi leaders was very sceptical. Mrs Gandhi herself deputed three senior leaders – Mr Ahmed Patel, Mr Venugopal and Mr Kharge – and along with myself and Mr Thorat we negotiated. Our first hurdle was to decide the number of ministers [from the Congress] out of the total number of 43, the legal limit in Maharashtra. It was easily decided that each party divides its MLAs in the same proportion and we came out with 16 for Shiv Sena, 15 for NCP and 12 for us. It was as per the strength of the house. As the chief minister was from Shiv Sena we decided against having a three-way division of chief-minister-ship with Mr Uddhav Thackeray himself and not somebody deputed by him who would become the CM, which was accepted by all. There were issues on the speaker’s post and we decided that it would go to the Congress in lieu of which Shiv Sena agreed to drop one minister. So eventually it was 15 for Shiv Sena, 16 for NCP and 12 for Congress with speakership. Later, I believe, Mr Balasaheb Thorat was given the responsibility of apportioning party-wise portfolios. Such divisions are never easy and personal preferences of an individual in negotiating also happen. That happened and there were last-minute changes. Largely, each party has been given portfolios on the criterion of who best matched the portfolio and Delhi leadership decided to allocate portfolios out of the [Congress] 44 MLAs.
The Congress high command is reportedly upset at portfolio allocation.
I am not sure of that. Nobody has personally told me about it.
Many important names from the Congress have been denied portfolios.
You are not there…
After having worked in very senior positions in the centre and as CM of Maharashtra and now with Mr Uddhav Thackeray as CM, Mr Ajit Pawar as deputy CM and with Mr Thorat as our group leader it was my personal preference not to become mere minister of one department. I could have reconsidered if the party thought my presence could be required to balance out senior leaders in other parties and further if I could contribute with my experience.
How do you view the impact of upcoming municipal and other local elections on the Congress, NCP and Shiv Sena in the state?
If the Congress-NCP and Shiv Sena fight all municipal/local body elections, there are chances that we may defeat BJP easily because BJP alone is not such a large group and not more than 50 percent. The local body elections that took place over the last few weeks also indicate that with Kolhapur and Aurangabad election outcomes, there is fairly good chance of the Congress, NCP and Shiv Sena getting local bodies and BJP being externed, which is a good thing for us.
What role will a senior Congress leader like you play in the government?
I am in the house. I will always be available for counsel. Why do I have to be a member of the council of ministers?
How and when do you see the issue of the Congress president-ship getting resolved?
Mrs Sonia Gandhi reluctantly agreed to become interim president when Mr Rahul Gandhi quit. She agreed to hold things together till such elections could happen or things could be worked out. I don’t know when that will happen. As per the Congress constitution there is a structure of PCC delegates who vote in presidential elections. That process could be carried out or we could do the entire exercise again which could take a year to complete.
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