The grand old man of Indian politics, Sharad Pawar, speaks to Governance Now about this years elections and the state of India's democracy
Sharad Pawar is the grand old man of Indian politics. He is among the last stalwarts from a generation that is fading out. He has served as chief minister of Maharashtra four times and held crucial portfolios of defence and agriculture at the centre. In this election, he is busier than most, hopping across Maharashtra and addressing a series of rallies every day. Amid his hectic schedule, he spoke to Geetanjali Minhas. Excerpts from the interview:
How is this Lok Sabha election different from 2014 general election?
In the 2014 elections, we saw for the first time that a particular party practically travelled throughout India and promised people a certain definite programme, harping on development. There was wide publicity of the so-called Gujarat model of development. Mr Modi at that time happened to be the chief minister of Gujarat and had done certain work which was generally discussed in the media as the Gujarat model of development. He was promising to create a perception of executing a similar development model throughout the country. He got clear-cut majority. In the current election, we have seen a different situation. There is no Modi wave. Let’s see what happens.
How do you evaluate the Modi government’s performance?
Mr Modi’s clear-cut mandate was for development. Generally when you think of development of the country, you think of industrialisation, opportunities to work in factories, job creation and good infrastructure. If you review, this has not happened in the last five years. For example, even though Maharashtra was always an industrialised state, in these five years there is practically no new investment barring some exceptions and a large number of units have closed. There is no job creation. The NSSO figures also say that the percentage of unemployed youth has been growing and there is no job creation. In the 2014 election, the entire section of small traders was with BJP and Modi. [For them] GST too has created unhappiness. By announcing demonetisation, a major step backwards, the PM forced people to stand in queues in bank branches for three-four days to exchange currency notes. Some 150 people died in the process. About 50 lakh people lost jobs across the country. [Almost all] the amount that was in circulation came back into the system and they could not establish any currency as black money. This ultimately affected the economy. The RBI governor too stated that the decision was taken without serious prior thinking and consultation of experts. Suddenly, for no reason there was unhappiness which was evident in the succeeding year too. My observation is that in rural India there is not just unhappiness but a lot of anger against the BJP and particularly Mr Modi. Unlike the rant of ‘Modi, Modi, Modi’ in urban India, I have not seen the same mood in rural Maharashtra.
Now at the end of five years people want to know what happened on the development front, his commitment for an agriculture fund, industrialisation, farmers’ issues, jobs, etc. He has practically forgotten the idea of development and is trying to divert the attention of the common man towards the issues of nationalism. Who is against nationalism? We all want to protect the interests of our country and we are serious about the country’s security. After the India-China war when there was a setback to the Indian armed forces our country seriously took up the issue of security. The situation now is not the same. There are certain terrorist activities in Kashmir and other places but not across the country as a whole. But Mr Modi is trying his level best to create a sort of fear psychosis and influence the thinking of public at large by stepping on the issue of terrorism as if he is the only person who is seriously thinking about the issue of nationalism and protecting the country’s interests by taking sound action on terrorists.
These are clear failures of Mr Modi and his government. The performance is not up to the mark. The [Mumbai] metro work was started during the UPA regime five years ago and Mr Modi is taking credit for schemes which were already there. He is continuing earlier governments’ schemes and merely changing their names.
Has this government paid sufficient attention to agriculture and rural economy?
They have neglected this area. They have not paid attention to the agrarian crisis. They made a lot of speeches and raised slogans. In one of his speeches during the 2014 elections, talking about farmers’ suicide, Mr Modi had said that farmers were unable to pay money taken from banks and banks were taking strict action against them. He promised that if he won, in his first meeting with the council of ministers he would take a decision on a loan waiver for the farmers. Now five years are over. Farmers’ suicides are continuing and he still has not taken that decision. The agriculture sector is very important and it is concerned with food security of our country. At least 11,998 farmers have committed suicide between 2017 and 2019. Practically every day some farmers are committing suicide. With no remunerative prices, no loan waiver to farmers and no investments in agriculture, the collective result is unhappiness for the farmers. People are angry.
Is this the first time in decades that you are not contesting elections?
This is not the first time. I did not contest 2014 elections. I contested 2013-14 elections. I decided not to contest Lok Sabha polls. I am a member of the Rajya Sabha, the house of elders. I am 79 years now. I think one can assume I belong to the elders category and that’s what I had decided five years back.
Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis says you want to become the prime minister even if your party, NCP, has never won more than 10 seats in the Lok Sabha. Your comments?
I never said I want to be the prime minister. See, we [Congress-NCP alliance in Maharashtra] are contesting 20-25 seats. How can I expect that I should be the prime minister? I always say when one is contesting 25 seats one should not expect prime minister-ship. I never say I am a prime ministerial candidate. They are making propaganda. I don’t make pointless efforts and I don’t resort to publicity. My job is to try and bring together like-minded people and I am doing just that. We met in Kolkata, Bangalore and Delhi and tried to come together. The basic idea was absolutely clear – that for Lok Sabha elections we will come together in strength to provide a front to reach out every corner of the country. For that reason we decided to come together and after getting the magic figure we can definitely form a viable alternative. Then we will finalise a common minimum programme and provide government.
Are we moving towards a personality-oriented, ‘presidential’ kind of contests?
That is what Mr Modi is trying. Both Mr Modi and BJP want to create division, a situation of personality-based contests where A and B are pitted against each other. A is there but we cannot say exactly who will be B tomorrow. If you see the state-wise situation there is every possibility that non-BJP forces will come together, and definitely provide a stable government.
You seem to share a unique bonding with Modi: he often acknowledges you are his guru and yet makes personal attacks on you too. What is the secret of this relationship?
He is unhappy with me because I am consolidating the opposition, bringing them together from cross-sections, so that we can create confidence in the minds of public at large that we can provide a viable alternative. I don’t have any personal interest in doing so; and someone who has personal interest will not do so. It goes back to 2004 when I took over as union minister for agriculture. The first file I signed was to import certain food grains. I was unhappy but I accepted the challenge of improving production and productivity in agriculture. As agriculture is a state subject, unless the states cooperate the person occupying the top position in the Krishi Bhavan in Delhi cannot do much. I tried to keep exchanging notes with each state chief minister irrespective of their party and supported, helped and encouraged all. It is with due credit to them too that India became the largest rice exporter in the world and the second largest exporter of wheat, sugar and cotton. From a major importer the country became a major exporter because of active cooperation of all states and aggressive and proactive efforts of the ministry of agriculture. All states were happy with me and Gujarat was no exception. When Mr Modi was the CM of Gujarat I visited the state on many occasions, attended many farmers’ conferences along with him and supported him. He appreciates this.
This is the first election in which Priyanka Gandhi is actively campaigning for the Congress, beyond the family constituencies. Will she make an impact?
Frankly speaking, I have not met her or seen her except on television. She was not in politics and the question of meeting her never arose. Her family belongs to the Congress party. Our equation was with Sonia Gandhi and now with Rahul Gandhi. Going by what I have observed through media, she seems to work hard – which is typical, like her grandmother, Mrs Indira Gandhi – and is aggressive. Ultimately people do respect anyone who is ready to work hard for their sake.
How do you see Raj Thackeray’s support for the Congress-NCP alliance in Maharashtra?
Raj had a meeting with me two-three months before the announcement of elections. He told me he was not going to contest any Lok Sabha seats and said his area of interest was the state assembly. He said his aim in this election was to expose the dangerous combination of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah and for that reason he had decided not to put up a single candidate. For that, he said he would travel to most of Maharashtra and explain to people why the two are harmful and expose them. He has received a lot of response from public, particularly the younger generation, and succeeded in exposing the present leadership of BJP.
Despite alleged blunders of his government, going by opinion polls, Modi remains far more popular than any other leader. How do you explain this Modi phenomenon?
You see, they are unable to explain their contribution and trying to divert attention. They are asking who the PM candidate is in the opposition. That should not be a problem. In 2004 I got the ministry of agriculture as there was no alternative. Earlier, there was a prime minister like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was more popular than Mr Modi both within the government and with the people, had better reputation compared to Mr Modi, and the party projected the concept of India Shining. Nobody was projected as a prime ministerial candidate that time. After the election we sat down together, and elected Dr Manmohan Singh as the prime minister. We had never contested in the name of Dr Manmohan Singh or projected him as prime minister. Still we succeeded and provided a stable government for 10 years.
Sometimes we wonder if we are living in a democracy at all. I am a member of the Rajya Sabha and have never seen him in the Rajya Sabha except once for a few hours. He never bothers to participate in the debates and discussions in parliament except when it interests him. We have seen that in decision-making process he has concentrated all power in his own hands. I have been the chief minister of this state for four times and can understand if the person running the state wants to keep control of decision-making in his own hands; because a state is a limited area. But if you are running the national government, your approach has to be much broader because every state has different issues. If one person thinks he alone can protect the interests of every corner of the country he might work hard but will not be able to do justice. He will have to give full authority to his team. I don’t think Mr Modi is a team man.
(This interview appears in the May 31, 2019 edition)