His wilderness lasted seven years until Rajiv Gandhi, then Prime Minister, took him in the Congress again and sent him back as CM. When Rajiv was assassinated in 1991, Pawar, then only 50 years old, was seen as a major contender for the top job but lost out to PV Narasimha Rao. Pawar became Defence Minister but Rao, who distrusted him, sent him back as CM.
It was seven years again before Pawar saw his chance as Rao fell from grace. But he floundered again by rising against Sonia Gandhi, opposing her leadership because she is Italian by origin. Pawar broke away from the Congress in 1999 but within months, he was eating humble pie, associating the NCP with the Congress to form a coalition government in Maharashtra.
When the UPA came to power at the Centre in 2004, the best Pawar got was to head the Union Agriculture Ministry. On the eve of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, Pawar, 68, is typically positioned not too far but not too close to the Congress. Rana Ayyub met him in Mumbai for an expansive interview, during which he refused to commit if he would back Manmohan Singh for a second five-year term as PM.
The Congress says you were working against the UPA’S interest by agreeing to attend last week’s BJD-Left rally in Orissa, from which you backed off only at the last minute.
Those in the Congress who have been making statements should know that this was not a meeting organised by the Third Front or the Left. It was a meeting by our ally, the BJD. The NCP has taken a political decision of going with the BJD.
In fact, we are grateful that [Orissa Chief Minister] Naveen Patnaik has deserted the BJP. I think his expectation was that those who with the UPA will support him and cooperate with him. Unfortunately, that did not happen, but we feel that we [the UPA] should try and keep good relations with those who keep away from the BJP.
Secondly, Mr Patnaik has not joined any Third Front, so there was nothing wrong in my party going with him. That’s why we have taken this decision. If during the elections, my party members and I take part in an election rally in Orissa, there is nothing wrong with it.
Those who are making statements are irrational. They are not ready to understand the ground situation. There are Congress leaders who communicated to me that they have no objection in our going with political parties in those states where we have not reached any understanding with the Congress, and that we can go ahead unless the allies are NDA partners.
Why is the Congress creating an issue now? The BJD is no longer an NDA partner. I don’t know what right [Home Minister P] Chidambaram has to tell me what I should do. Whatever instructions he has to take and obey have to be from his bosses.
You said you missed the Orissa rally due to a technical snag in your airplane. But it looked more like that the Congress pressured you.
Nobody from the Congress has pressurised me. When I am contesting elections in alliance with the BJD, it’s an open thing. I said I am going there, which is why I conveyed my message [at the rally] via an audio link.
But it came only after Chidambaram and other Congress leaders subtly warned you against attending such meetings. Did it hurt you?
These statements are made by people who do not have any political base. They are managers, poll managers. Why should I bother?
Chidambaram is not a poll manager. He is an important leader of the Congress and the Union Home Minister.
You have a good equation with parties across the spectrum, from the Left to the SP. Does it mean you are looking at forging an alliance not with the BJP or the Congress, but a Third Front?
It is too early to say that. Our effort will be that the UPA partners should sit together and resolve the issue of leadership. We are confident we will be able to do that. Unless and until we reach the magic figure we can’t discuss this issue. We will discuss it after elections. If we don’t get the numbers, we will sit on the other side. But we are confident that we will be able to reach the figure, and form a stable and forward-looking government.
You only have a state-wise alliance with the Congress. Why did you not go for a nationwide pre-poll alliance?
We were the ones who suggested a prepoll alliance to the Congress. It was a conscious, collective view in our party. We said that in the larger interest of the secular forces, those who have been in the UPA for five years and those who are ready should put a united front.
Why is the Congress creating an issue? The BJD is no longer an NDA partner. I don’t know what right Chidambaram has to tell me what to do
We should have a joint programme and project a leader; it would have helped us. But we can only suggest. The Congress is competent to take its own decisions and we have no objection.
The Congress seems to have alienated itself from many of its allies and supporters: Lalu Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan. Will this not damage the UPA’S prospects?
Some in the Congress think they should not associate themselves with any political party. They think they should contest all the seats and that they can go ahead and win. If this is their thinking, they can go ahead and see what happens. How can one help?
You admit that the NCP won’t be the single largest party as it is contesting only 50 seats. But you insist it will be a significant player. What about your aspirations to become PM? What happens after the elections?
Our approach post-elections would be to discuss the issue to resolve it. Our interest is to provide a stable government. The NCP would give priority to that, which is why six months ago we met [PM] Manmohan Singhji to discuss it. We are not thinking only about these issues. We are thinking about the country.
But the PM’S candidature is an issue?
It is an important issue.
How would you rate Manmohan Singh as Prime Minisiter? Do you continue to support his candidature?
Manmohan Singhji has been responsible for keeping all the parties together. There have been differences of opinion within the UPA at various times, and of such a level where we could not have worked together. But due credit should be given to Manmohan Singh for taking all his colleagues into confidence, and discussing it with everyone. He has given full freedom to every minister and department.
It is to his credit that the UPA has successfully completed five years. He has been able to tackle issues like terrorism and development at a time when the country suffered the worst terror attacks and the economic slowdown.
So do you support Manmohan Singh as PM and do not object to UPA projecting him as the next PM?
Why should I discuss the issue now? Nobody has raised it with us. Don’t you think if a group of people or parties sit together, then the issues will at least be discussed? Here we haven’t [yet] sat down. Nobody is opposing or supporting anyone.
If Parliament is hung, and the UPA can’t form the government, would the Third Front be an alternative?
Why should we think that? We don’t think that we will not get a majority. We are not like [BJP leader] Sushma Swaraj who said that the NDA will not get a majority. We think positively. It is very obvious at public meetings that the mood favours us.
Do you aspire to be PM? Does the NCP wish to see its candidate as PM?
It’s a simple theory. We are contesting 50 seats, and we know what is needed and know how many we will get. We are not away from reality. We know what to think and what not to.
Manmohan Singh is responsible for keeping all the parties together. But why should I discuss now whether I will support him as the next PM?
Mulayam Singh has said he has no problem if you become the PM, provided you have the numbers. Lalu Yadav earlier said the same. The Left parties have a good equation with you.
They are good friends and well-wishers. But these decisions cannot be taken by individuals or parties. They have to be taken collectively. Either a single party gets a majority and decides its candidate for the post of the PM.
If that does not happen, then likeminded forces come together and discuss the issue. Ultimately, the real part will be played only after the elections.
Will these like-minded forces form a Third Front?
It’s a hypothetical question. The UPA should be united.
You have often played the role of a mediator after elections. Do you think it will be possible for all the secular parties to form an alliance after the elections?
That will be our effort. In our national level meeting that was held before the formation of the UPA, we had taken the resolution for all like-minded parties to come together. Because we know that’s the need of the hour. We are absolutely clear that no single party can run a government. Those days are gone. Nobody should dream that they will single handedly be able to form a government. We have to respect the concept of coalition and we have to respect and understand each other. And for that somebody has to take that initiative, and we are ready to take that initiative.
The NCP manifesto takes credit for the waiver of farmers’ debts and the reservations for the Maratha caste in Maharashtra. But your party wasn’t responsible for either. The manifesto also promises to implement the Sachar Committee’s recommendations for the Muslims. Why didn’t you do that in the five years of UPA rule?
We have consistently insisted on the implementation of the Sachar Committee report. In fact, we have had detailed meetings with the PM over it. There are a lot of issues like the Reservations which are sensitive and will be given priority.
No single party can run a government. Those days are gone. Nobody should dream that they will be able to form a government alone
Your alliance with the Congress is restricted to Maharashtra and Gujarat. Why haven’t you struck a deal with the Congress in others states? In Maharashtra, too, you almost snapped ties with the Congress.
The NCP is the party that will gain [in this alliance]. It has got a better public response [than the Congress has]. Any political party will be agitated if the other gains more popularity.
I won’t blame the Congress; perhaps I would have reacted the same way. In such a situation, efforts are always made to curtail the other party. But there was a clarity that we had to work together. There were differences, but they were restricted to the state level. We managed to strike a deal and concede three more seats than the last time, although it has not been a 50-50 scenario. We have a good equation with the Congress.
But despite that good equation, you could not manage to forge an alliance in other states.
We tried to work it out with the Congress but it did not look keen. So, we had to go with allies other than those with the NDA. No one should have a problem with us if we decide to have rallies with those parties in other states.
Former Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh has said that the Congress would benefit if it did not ally with the NCP in the state.
Why should I make anything of his statements? He enjoyed power in the state because of our support, and these words never came out during that tenure. Now he has lost his job, so I can understand his difficulty [laughs].
Every time an election nears, you and the Shiv Sena begin to flirt with each other, and both hint that you could explore a tie-up. The Sena still says you are in the race for the PM’s job. Why do you use the Shiv Sena to build pressure on the Congress?
We don’t believe in carrying our political problems onto the personal level. We [the NCP and the Shiv Sena] have very serious differences as political parties where our ideology is concerned. But we also share a relationship and respect that spans 40 years. Personal relationships should be above all this.
I’m not promoting my daughter. Supriya has to deliver the goods. The seat is not permanent. She might get an advantage this time because of me
[Shiv Sena chief] Bal Thackeray and his party members have used the choicest of words to criticise me, and I, too, remaining within my limitations, have tried to respond. However, keeping personal relations aside, we [the NCP] have a commitment to secular parties. And that’s where it ends. There is no question of having any alliance with the Shiv Sena of any kind, ever.
The SP and the BSP, which are seen as non-Maharashtra parties, are contesting a large number of seats in the state. Given their traditional appeal among the backward and Dalit voters, do you see them as a threat?
We would have ideally taken everyone along. I had suggested to the Congress, that we go along with the SP but it was not accepted. When I was in the Congress and headed it in the state, I had ensured that we contested together, and the result was there to see — we won. We desired the same now, but [our advice] wasn’t heeded, which is why the SP is contesting from so many seats.
The NCP has major internal problems. Former Lok Sabha speaker PA Sangma wants to end ties with the Congress and threatens to campaign for the BJP. Three-time Kolhapur MP Sadashiv Rao Mandlik has accused the party of turning on its loyalists.
We respect our colleagues and need their support but also know that we need to promote new young leadership. At times some leaders don’t get something and they criticise the party, but one has to forget such issues.
As for Sangma, I don’t blame him. Right after the [assembly] elections [in Meghalaya in March 2008], I held a press conference with him. We said that whichever party gets more votes will form the government and the other party will support it. The Congress formed the government without our support and could not survive even seven days. Sangma had to consolidate his position with others and form a new government. Our efforts were to put on a united front in the northeast. Sangma was the natural leader of the northeast. I think a person who has been respected by the masses should have been respected by political parties. Sangma himself tried to take initiatives to bring the Congress-NCP together but statements were made against him. The problem arose because of the internal problems within the Congress, which it is not ready to accept.
It looks then like all love is lost between the Congress and the NCP. Will the NCP break from the Congress and lead the Third Front with the Left?
It’s not about personal equations. The UPA stands together and it will have to, and the rest will be decided after the Lok Sabha elections.
You look to be promoting your daughter Supriya Sule in the party. You gave her the Baramati seat, which was your constituency.
Supriya has to work. She has to deliver the goods. The seat is not a permanent asset. This time she might get the advantage because of me. [But] she has to prove her mettle. She has worked in the area and gone to places where even I have not been able to go.
I am in no way promoting Supriya. She has proved herself. I think it is time to pave the way for the younger generation. We have to give the leadership to the younger leaders.
How do you react to Varun Gandhi’s statement against the Muslims? He, too, is seen as a youth leader.
Varun’s statement just shows what the BJP is all about. Only they can talk about cutting hands off.