Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar has proposed that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi, former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda and he — three senior leaders with “no ambition to become Prime Minister” — should come together to unite the Opposition, travel throughout the country, give confidence to the people, and provide a robust counter-narrative to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, reports the Hindustan Times.
Pawar has also, for the first time, opened the doors of the NCP-Congress alliance in Maharashtra to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and said that while he had not discussed the issue with BSP chief Mayawati, he would be ‘happy’ since this association will pay dividends.
In an interview to Hindustan Times, Pawar laid out a detailed roadmap for the Opposition for 2019. He compared the current political situation to 1975-77; argued that disillusionment has set in against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, like it had against Indira Gandhi; and suggested that the Opposition focus should be on state-wide alliances instead of a national alliance. Pawar called for the leadership question to be left for after the elections, and while urging the Congress to adopt a “rational approach” on state partnerships, said that he has felt over recent conversations that Rahul Gandhi has “substantially improved”.
Emphasising the parallels between the current political climate and the situation in 1975-77, when he was a minister in the Maharashtra government, Pawar said that like Indira Gandhi, Modi too had “control of media, government and government agencies”.
At that time too, he said, people were pointing to the lack of an alternative platform, organisation and leader to pose a genuine challenge.
“The difference is there was one leader – Jayaprakash Narayan. Political leaders and people were willing to accept his advice. And ultimately on his advice, most leaders forgot their parties.” Pawar said that it was eventually after the election that the Janata Party came together and Morarji Desai was elected the leader.
He added, “I honestly feel that there are some leaders, like Sonia Gandhi, (HD) Deve Gowda and, while I should not say it, myself also…we have no ambition to become Prime Minister. At least I am speaking for myself. But I have ambition to bring all these forces together and provide a viable alternative. For that, some of us – the names I have mentioned – can travel throughout India and give confidence to the people of India because today, there is no JP (Jayaprakash Narayan).”
The BJP did not comment on Pawar’s remarks.
Pawar said his assessment was it was not possible to bring all forces at the National level. “Is it possible at the state level? I am in close dialogue with various state leaders and my own assessment is yes.”
Pawar then laid out the architecture of the state-wide alliances, which would have to rest on other parties conceding space to Congress where it was the dominant force and Congress recognising its era of total dominance was over and giving space to regional parties in other places.
In Kerala, West Bengal and Delhi, he spoke of the Left, Trinamool Congress and Aam Aadmi Party respectively as the number one forces around which the Opposition should rally.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi had broadly agreed with him, claimed Pawar, praising Gandhi’s approach of not projecting any leader before elections as the “correct, sensible approach”.
“He (Rahul) said there are some states where it is difficult for my colleagues to accept or digest this situation, particularly Kerala and West Bengal. In Kerala, they feel our fight with the Left is equal. In West Bengal, the position is not like Kerala, but the overall thinking of the leadership of the Congress party about Mamata is such that it is difficult for them to accept her. He told me that it is difficult in these two-three states. I told him you are the leader, and it is your job to convince.”
Comparing Sonia and Rahul, the NCP chief said that even though he had fought with Sonia Gandhi, they shared an excellent equation, she tried to understand issues and gave respect to other leaders. “Rahul is also showing it. There is a definite improvement.”
Pawar also said that he had recently met Mayawati. “She has consolidated the position in UP with Samajwadi Party and others. But she expects other parties to take a rational approach in other states. She is totally for a change and she is ready to work hard.” When asked if he would be open to allying with her in Maharashtra, he replied, “I have not discussed it with her. I will be happy. Her association will pay dividends in Vidarbha region.”
Pawar categorically ruled himself out of the PM race. “Irrational thinking has no meaning in politics. There has to be rational thinking. My party will ultimately contest 30-35 seats throughout India. I may get 50 percent maximum. With that number, if anyone dreams of becoming PM of this country, he is quite away from reality.”
Milan Vaishnav, senior fellow and director of the South Asia programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said: “Pawar’s assessment broadly strikes a chord with the mantra other opposition leaders have uttered: ‘localise, localise, localise.’ While the BJP pushes to nationalise and make 2019 about Modi, the best bet for the Opposition is to make this 543 unique elections. State-specific alliances avoid tricky pan-Indian questions about leadership that the opposition is in no place to answer right now.”
Vaishnav added that a big looming question is whether the Congress would be willing to take a backseat in electorally critical states. “Recent moves — Karnataka is a case in point — suggest it might be.”