In the midst of the hectic electioneering, former Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, spoke with Geetanjali Minhas on trends in this years polls.
Former Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, an engineer by training, is a rare politician: down-to-earth and with a clean image. In the midst of the hectic electioneering, Chavan spoke with Geetanjali Minhas on trends in these polls. Edited excerpts from the interview:
What are the key election issues in these Lok Sabha elections?
Very clearly, in rural areas, it is farm distress. We saw its impact in the assembly elections of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. At the central level there has been mishandling of farm policies by Mr Modi. In Maharashtra, where 50 percent population is clearly rural, the anger is palpable and the farm loan issue was completely bungled at the state level. The other half is urban, where jobs are an amorphous issue as many people seeking jobs are not well educated. Others want to do something on their own.
The mishandling and collapse of the economy due to wrong decisions by Mr Modi on demonetisation and ham-handed implementation of GST led to troubles for small traders and businesses, the self-employed and daily wage workers and the real estate sector. No major industrialisation happened [during these five years] and it reflected on job growth.
The government also does not seem to have a strategy in place to take on the challenge of new technology, e-commerce and share economy like Ola, Uber and food delivery apps, which are further affecting traditional jobs, and to make ourselves ready for AI, robotics, big data and analytics.
There is a gap between what Mr Modi promised and what he delivered. He promised a corruption-free government and he himself got embroiled in the complex Rafale deal on which the supreme court will take a decision.
We are fighting the threat of muscular nationalism, Hindutva and religious polarisation from the BJP side. The key issue in this election is ‘Save Democracy, Save the Constitution’. We have highlighted failures of the Modi government during the election campaign.
Maharashtra will have assembly election later this year. Will that be fought on the same issues? What is the Congress agenda for the state?
The tone and tenor of the assembly elections will depend on the outcome of the Lok Sabha elections. If the Congress-led UPA Mahagathbandhan comes to power, the emphasis would be on the state government’s misrule. In the unlikely event of the BJP putting together a majority the emphasis will be on misgovernance of central and state governments over the last five years. The state elections will have the same broad coalition we have in the general elections.
The agrarian crisis in rural and semi-rural areas, jobs in urban areas, mess in the education system, collapse of health systems, slowdown of the economy, corruption of the state government particularly in transfers and postings in the rural areas, the Development Plans of Mumbai and Pune, social tensions in the manner the minorities have been targeted, the RSS view of women and Modi government’s complete failure in discussing development issues in the general elections will be the focus of the state by elections .
Both national and state level corruption will be an important issue in the state assembly elections. Many inquiries on corruption scandals against the state ordered by the chief minister are hanging fire and have not reached conclusion. We will raise these issues in the assembly and move court in cases where inquiries have been completed and findings suppressed. We are sure that people of Maharashtra will throw out the corrupt Fadnavis government.
The Congress and NCP say that the state government’s water scheme, Jalyukta Shivir Abhiyan, has failed. How do you plan to address the drought issues and crisis in the rural economy?
Jalyukta Shivir Abhiyan, the farm pond on-demand scheme in Maharashtra, and the centre’s Pradhan Manti Krishi Sinchai Yojana were all widely advertised but had no impact on ground despite spending thousands of crores of rupees and the outcome is zilch for all to be seen.
Drought mitigation will be the first challenge before the new government and long-term farm policies will have to wait. There have to be on-demand water tankers, fodder depots and most importantly cattle camps. The government was slow-footed in starting cattle camps. In 2013, when we were in power, the state faced severe drought. We allowed NGOs that fulfilled basic criteria to start cattle camps, without bringing in difficult conditions and deposits. So much so that at one time there were 10 lakh cattle in camps and not a single cattle was lost. In my hometown Satara, there were camps with as many as 10,000 cattle with supply of medicines and ample water. Understandably there has been a resource constraint. We will request the centre to release the balance amount – as the state has received only Rs 4,714 crore so far out of the total Rs 7,900 crore – or raise loans, because you cannot let the people down.
Secondly, all percolation tanks built during the 1972 drought, Kohlapur-type weirs, Malgujari talaos in Vidarbha region are low-hanging fruit and must be repaired, desilted, their leaks plugged and made functional on a war-footing. This does not cost much money. In Buldhana and Amravati, salt pan land with saline water challenges can be mitigated by reviving village ponds.
Against the national forest policy guidelines of the forest cover of one-third area, the eight districts of Marathawada region have a forest cover of only 1-2 percent. Latur district that faced a severe water crisis two years ago has a forest cover of half percent. Not even half of the loan waiver package of Rs 34,000 was disbursed. The centre kept farm prices depressed to keep inflation low and help consumers and the industrial sector during the first four years. The MSP [increase] was mere 2-3 percent, against about 19% in the UPA government. Importing agro goods when farm prices tend to rise was utter policy failure. Coupled with recurrent drought, this was a recipe for disaster.
Those sitting in air-conditioned offices saying that the farm loan waiver is a bad policy are short-sighted. When government policies fail at the time of a national calamity, once farmers’ property cards are cleared with loan waivers, they can re-borrow and stand on their own feet. We will have to relook at the irrigation scenario, finish last-mile irrigation projects on war footing, and reinvigorate agriculture as it provides employment to almost 55-57 percent people in Maharashtra. It has to be the driving force of Maharashtra’s economy.
Like our Sangharsh Yatra a few years back, we are planning a joint tour of the drought-affected districts along with other opposition parties.
How would you rate the current government’s achievements?
Besides their failures mentioned above, not a single project of which we had laid the foundation stone, like the Trans-Harbor link, Navi Mumbai International Airport, Coastal Road, Chhattrapati Shivaji Memorial Statue or the Ambedkar Memorial, has been completed. There is corruption in posting, frequent transfers, Mumbai and Pune land, changes in Development Plans and changes in reservation policies. We raised this in the assembly and the CM cancelled land allotments in CIDCO and MP Mills Compound and ordered inquiries. In the case of corruption in the entire Rs 60,000 crore Samruddhi Corridor, the Mumbai Nagpur Communications Information Highway, we have submitted to the government proof of land purchase along the corridor by officials related to politicians at throwaway prices before its alignment was made public – later the prices shot up by 10 times. A huge amount of money was made by those who were in the know of the actual alignment of the corridor. The findings of the inquiry are not yet out. We are awaiting action against the corrupt before the assembly elections.
What has been the experience this time regarding the coordination between the Congress and NCP?
After a long time I see that the coordination between the Congress and NCP has worked very well. If Modi were to win again, it will be very difficult for both our parties to face assembly elections. Together with allies like Swabhiman Shetkari Sanghtana, Shetkari Kamgar Party, Peasants and Workers Party, Communist parties and other small alliances, there is no way BJP can retain the state and we will be able to defeat BJP and Shiv Sena.
BJP has worked on strengthening its cadre. What about the Congress?
The Congress is not a cadre-based party and there is a lot of left-right ideological mix in the party. The BJP’s election fighting machinery is definitely much better than ours. The BJP has problems with the RSS and Modi and Amit Shah’s dictatorial style of leadership. Modi cannot stand more competent people like LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie and even had issues with Shatrughan Sinha. These people were quietly sidelined as if he had an inferiority complex and was not able to stand them. Rahul Gandhi has tried to build new, young Youth Congress that is now migrating to the parent body.
Why has the Congress not made the agrarian crisis a major poll issue?
Very clearly, we have capitalised on this in rural areas. Not only the Congress, NCP and other opposition parties, but people themselves are fighting on it. There is a very clear wave to remove Modi. The agriculture crisis happened due to the Modi and Fadnavis governments.
Why has the Congress been slow-footed in forging alliances at the national level?
Initially there was the thought of having a nationwide Mahagathbandhan in which all parties could come together in Delhi with a minimum common agenda of governance, but that would have required a leader to be designated, which we did not want to do. We decided to do state-wide alliances and the sum total of all alliances will be a final alliance for the Lok Sabha election so as not to let the opposition vote be divided. We largely succeeded on that but the Congress could not agree on alliances in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. In some Hindi heartland states individual parties did not come with us. By and large, you can’t have a ‘dream alliance’ and I am satisfied with what we got though in two or three states we could have done better. In Kerala we always contest against the left parties and there is no BJP there. Alliance is relevant only where the BJP is a dominant party. We have largely avoided splitting the opposition vote. In Maharashtra, Prakash Ambedkar’s party, Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, is surrogate of and the B team for BJP. I feel very sorry for Mr Ambedkar who spurned our offer of generous terms and fielded candidates everywhere just to divide the opposition vote.
Priyanka Gandhi opting out of a contest against Modi is being seen as a sign of weakness. Your comments?
Mrs Priyanka Gandhi Vadra never said she wanted to contest from Varanasi. She always said there was a popular demand by Congress workers in UP that she should take on the PM and keep him occupied in one constituency. She had clearly been told to look after 41 constituencies of eastern UP, the most difficult geography in the country for the Congress. By concentrating on a single constituency she would not have been able to do justice to the 40 constituencies of eastern UP. The Congress president in consultation with senior leaders decided she should rather campaign throughout UP.
How much will Raj Thackeray’s high-pitched support benefit the Congress-NCP alliance?
With his unique style of campaigning, without the interest of his own party and without his own candidates, his single-minded focus on the PM and BJP president Amit Shah, he has asked questions which many mainstream political parties found difficult to ask; particularly on the national security agenda, the Pulwama attack, demanding an inquiry into the air strikes and its outcome. The Rafale deal and [progress on] developmental works announced by the PM are technical in nature and require statistics. No figures have been given by the PM on Ujjwala Yojana, Jan Dhan Yojana or the number of toilets built under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. With videos and PowerPoint presentations Thackeray juxtaposed the promises with ground reality and exposed doublespeak and hypocrisy of the PM and the BJP leadership that lifted the veil off fake ad campaigns. He kept people spellbound. This will definitely hurt BJP and help the opposition parties. His unique way of public campaigning will now be a norm in future elections.
Alliances have their own compulsions. Don’t you think they affect governance?
We have examples of alliances lasting for just about a year and we also have the examples of Dr Manmohan Singh’s alliance lasting for 10 years, Narasimha Rao’s for five years and Vajpayee’s for six years. All these governments delivered great growth rates and progress. By and large, there was peace, wars were won and poverty reduced. There are compulsions and difficulties, and decision-making can sometimes become slow but alliances per se do not mean bad governance or unstable government.
Why are you not contesting the Lok Sabha elections?
Out of my 19 years in Delhi, 17-18 years were as an MP and six as a minister in the Manmohan Singh government. In Mumbai I have spent over eight years as a legislator and less than four years as chief minister. Though I would have liked to contest Lok Sabha but the Karad constituency which I normally represent is now called Satara and is with NCP. It has a sitting MP contesting for the third time. Although since 1999 I have not contested Lok Sabha elections, at this stage all senior people should have gone to Delhi. But since I did not have a constituency and did not want to move away from my constituency to Pune, Sangli etc as was being suggested, I would rather be happy to stay in Maharashtra.
(This interview appears in the May 31, 2019 edition)