AT 10.30 PM on 20 November, Prithviraj Chavan’s office is abuzz. He has a minister of state and partymen waiting to meet him. It has been a long and controversial day for Chavan who has earned the reputation of ‘Mr Clean’ among his admirers, including leaders from the BJP. TEHELKA’s meeting with the Maharashtra chief minister comes in the wake of the controversy surrounding Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray’s death.
As we are ushered in, Chavan apologises for the delay on account of his meeting with the French ambassador. One of his bureaucrats reveals that Chavan, who is known to work discreetly, has managed to swing a French project that was on its way to Gujarat. But there are other things on Chavan’s mind planned for the next day, which he believes will shock the nation. “Wait and watch,” he says. The following morning indeed brings in a shocker. At 8 am, the home ministry announces the execution of 26/11 terrorist Ajmal Kasab at Pune’s Yerwada jail.
Phone calls interrupt the conversation; the CM has a long night ahead. “This is my usual schedule. I’m almost sleep-deprived,” he laughs. For a man ridiculed for being paranoid about signing files and clearing them, Chavan has other issues at hand. Besides Kasab’s hanging, which was done with utmost secrecy, his government is accused of mishandling Shiv Sena’s hooliganism that followed the day after Thackeray’s death. In a conversation with Rana Ayyub that stretches close to midnight, Chavan takes questions on the controversy, his ties with the NCP and allegations of being a hurdle in the progress of the state.
EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
It’s been a day of controversies. The nation watched in shock as two innocent girls were arrested for posting an innocuous statement on Facebook. The role of the state machinery has been questioned. What’s your defence?
Well, there is no question of defending any such action. It was extremely bizarre. I have set up a high-level committee to look into the matter. In this particular case, the official involved has taken the action of his own accord without consulting the higher-ups. The details are still coming in. If found guilty, we will suspend the officials involved, whatever their rank. We have also taken strict action against the Shiv Sena vandals who attacked the clinic of the relatives (of the girl). I have reached out to the families of the girls; I can understand their plight. If need be, I will myself apologise to the families. I believe the girls would have been under tremendous duress. Having said that, let me add that the incident is an aberration and not a norm, and should be looked at in isolation. There could be a section of the police, especially at the local level, which looks up to the Shiv Sena; you can’t pre-empt a constable’s or officer’s ideology. Having said that, the details are still coming in, so one can’t be sure as to what happened.
But the message that has gone across seems to be that the state is living in fear of the Shiv Sena, although they are not in power.
What kind of fear? If deploying 20,000 policemen for the funeral was fear, then let me tell you that we should be appreciated for the way the entire episode was handled. We held high-level meetings on Saturday and Sunday with Shiv Sena leaders to ensure that no violence erupts during the funeral procession. We had to walk a tightrope. The way the government handled the situation, it should be lauded. Had there been any untoward incident, you would have blamed us for escalating tension and not being sensitive enough. We have been in power for three consecutive terms. Has there been any incident of violence? If I have to talk about my term, there has been no untoward incident in the state. So, what paranoia are we talking about?
Justice (retd) Markandey Katju wrote to you, demanding action against the cops. He says he is yet to get a response.
The moment we got his fax, we responded to it. There is nothing more to be added.
Questions are also being raised about why a State funeral was given to Bal Thackeray, a man who was indicted by various commissions for his involvement in riots and was critical of minorities. Doesn’t this send a wrong signal? And, wasn’t it a breach of law to allot Shivaji Park, which is a recreational ground, for his funeral?
I understand that there have been apprehensions regarding our granting permission for using the Shivaji Park for cremation purpose. There is a legal case going on wherein the high court and the Supreme Court have given contradictory views. For a long time, the ground has been used by the Shiv Sena for their Dussehra rally, so we used that as a rationale for giving the permission. Besides, where else could have we accommodated the huge gathering of people who had turned out? We were told that every shakha in the state brought thousands of people, and, of course, there was also genuine sympathy for Balasaheb. It would have been next to impossible for us to accommodate the crowd at Matoshree or at the Dadar crematorium, also keeping in mind the VIPs who had come for the funeral. Imagine, we had to keep a tab on the law and order situation in the city where most shops had been shut down. We ensured that no untoward incident took place. After deliberations on security, we permitted them to use the Shivaji Park, with enough security to ensure that no lumpen element creates mischief.
As far as the State funeral was concerned, it was a request by many senior leaders, including from the Congress and NCP, who were of the opinion that we should give him respect not as a politician but as an artist and a cartoonist. Bal Thackeray wasn’t the only one. In the past, too, we have given the same kind of State honour to artists and writers, so it’s not that we made an exception for him. Also, it was not a 21-gun salute.
With Thackeray gone, do you see a change in the dynamics of politics in Maharashtra? How will it impact the Shiv Sena?
We are confident that the Congress-NCP combine will form the government again after the 2014 Assembly election. With Balasaheb Thackeray’s death, the Shiv Sena has suffered a big loss, but we don’t see that impacting the Congress-NCP combine. It will impact the BJP and the Shiv Sena, which could see its members joining Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. By that logic, the Shiv Sena’s own votes would stand divided.
In the zilla parishad and municipal elections, although the voting pattern differs from the national level, the performance of the Congress and the NCP has only gone a step ahead. The Shiv Sena-BJP combination is surely on a decline.
But the problem is not as much with the Shiv Sena or the BJP; the problem is between the Congress and the NCP. You are said to have been one of the reasons why Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel threatened to withdraw support from the UPA government at the Centre?
(Laughs) Well, I would be flattered to believe that Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel gave me so much respect and that because of me, they jeopardised their position at the national level. But unfortunately, it’s not the truth. The NCP had issues with the government, just like most allies would have in a coalition government. They had issues about not getting plush berths. Yes, there was a minor issue of co-ordination in Maharashtra, but the NCP will tell you that this was not the trigger for them to threaten to withdraw support.
But it has been alleged by the NCP that you want to bring about a white paper on irrigation only to corner them and get the upper hand. In fact, it’s also alleged that you were the instigator behind YP Singh’s disclosures on Pawar?
That’s absolute rubbish. What is a white paper? It’s a document whose terminology changes from country to country. In a state like Maharashtra, where agriculture plays an important role, irrigation projects had to be sorted. And by mutual consent with the NCP, we have decided to table the white paper by 10 December. We have asked the water resources minister to list the details of all irrigation projects, including the funds required. So there is no contradiction there. As far as Anjali Damania and the IAC are concerned, she came to me with RTI activist Mayank Gandhi and they said that their land had been acceded and that they wanted to move an RTI on this. Whatever information has come out in the public domain has come courtesy of the RTI. So where is the question of mischief here? As far as the Congress and the NCP are concerned, yes, we have differences, but we also know that we cannot survive without each other, so we will have to reconcile with our differences. Why the state does not have a deputy CM is something you need to ask of the NCP and Ajit Pawar. As such, my government is working smoothly.
But you don’t clear files. There have been no major decisions taken by your government. Your two-year rule is said to have been a dull show.
Honestly, people who make such allegations should really come and check our files and see the qualitative decisions taken by the government. Whether it is vis-á-vis the sugar cooperatives, monorail or housing projects for the poor. Nobody wants to look at that. You have to understand that I joined the government when the credibility of the Congress- NCP combine was at a low. The Adarsh scam had cast aspersions on the role of many ministers and I had been asked to step in at a time when each and every move of mine would be scrutinised and monitored. You must be aware as to how the builders’ nexus works in Maharashtra, and to a large extent it is political. My decision on Floor Space Index (FSI) for flats and formation of societies has been questioned. To begin with, I had to break that nexus.
There is an influx of migrants from across the country and everybody wants to stay in Mumbai. I have encouraged townships on the outskirts of Mumbai so that those areas become economically stable. We have announced schemes for slum-dwellers, but then everybody comes in, builds slums, and then we are asked to accommodate them. It’s a herculean task. In spite of this, we have brought in changes in the housing law. Extra FSI of 0.33 has been allotted to the Mumbai suburbs, and the procedure of enabling conveyance has been made easier so that builders don’t dupe buyers.
Look at the cooperatives sector; I’m talking of the sugar cooperatives because sugarcane farmers are in the news. I have made it clear that the fair and remunerative price (FRP) should be given as per the law and if factories give less than that, we will take action. We ensured that last year too the farmers got a first advance of Rs 1,800 per tonne, compared to the previous year’s FRP, which was Rs 1,400. We have upheld and cancelled licences of sugar cooperatives that refused to pay crushing prices. Now these are macro details. How many of you know that I have ensured that building projects, which will now come up in the suburbs, will have a 20 percent quota for the lower income group? Criticism is welcome, but it has to be genuine and valid.
‘There could be a section of the police that looks up to the Shiv Sena; you can’t pre-empt a constable’s or officer’s ideology’
The accusation is that you spend more time playing politics than clearing files… to ensure that you get an upper hand over the NCP and that it was the purpose of getting you from New Delhi to Maharashtra…
Honestly, I don’t know how to answer this. I’m not here to factionalise the Congress. I think the Congress leaders in the state and in Delhi are content with my policy decisions. Not many, even in the Opposition, will have serious allegations against me. And that should speak for itself.
You recently cleared and later cancelled the licence of a third hill station in Maharashtra, near Pune…
I did give the sanction, but after having figured that the papers were not in place, I cancelled it. As a CM, it’s my prerogative to cancel allotments if I find the details dodgy. As far as Lavasa is concerned, the leak of documents had nothing to do with me. The decisions were made by the previous governments. Jairam Ramesh would be the best person to talk about it.
‘Why does the state not have a deputy CM is something you need to ask of the NCP. As such, my government is working smoothly’
It’s said that you feel uncomfortable and out of place here and would rather be in New Delhi helping the prime minister?
(Laughs) Well, I have spent most of my time in New Delhi, so it’s very natural that I felt a bit awkward. Initially, the issues were local and I was not acquainted with the leaders. I took my time and I think I have managed well. Of course, New Delhi has its own charm and Manmohan Singh was a terrific leader to work with. But then, I’m a Maharashtrian, and it feels good to be here. I don’t see myself moving out.
There were rumours that a settlement had been reached between the Congress and the NCP and that you would be called back?
Well, I’m very much here, right in front of you as the CM of Maharashtra. I don’t think I’m going anywhere.
What’s the one thing that you miss about Delhi?
In Delhi, I could go for a cup of coffee with a friend or a colleague, or for dinner with my family and enjoy my space and moment of privacy. That is something I miss in Mumbai; you are recognised everywhere. This evening, I had planned to meet a long-time friend, but again, some compromises have to be made.
Rana Ayyub is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka.