Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar, 78, has emerged as the main opposition face in the campaign ahead of the October 21 Maharashtra polls. He spoke to Hindustan Times about the challenges the opposition alliance faces amid the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s focus on national issues. Edited excerpts:
How would you react to those who say this is a one-sided fight?
I do not understand that if it is a one-sided fight, why is the Prime Minister [Narendra Modi] addressing nine public meetings here? Why is the Union home minister [Amit Shah] addressing 20 meetings…? Why are they spending so much time here? The BJP leadership from across India; their members of Parliament are here and visiting every corner of the state. It shows the situation is not favourable for them. What we saw in  Lok Sabha elections and what we are seeing in the Vidhan Sabha [assembly polls], there is a vast difference. Just like in Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh, in Lok Sabha the BJP won the states but in Vidhan Sabha elections [the results] were different. A similar situation is very much here in Maharashtra, and those who do not have enough knowledge about the ground realities are saying [it will be a one-sided fight].
The Congress barely got a majority of seats in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh in the 2018 polls.
There were BJP governments there [previously]. So the public at large has thrown those BJP governments [out] …a majority is a majority.
Do you feel you have a weak alliance partner? The Congress has faced a lot of infighting. People like Sanjay Nirupam and Milind Deora have been attacking each other.
I do not think so. In Maharashtra, if you go to any village, there is a certain percentage of the population committed to the Congress. They do not see who the candidate is, they just vote for the Congress. That type of base is there. [For] the SCs [Scheduled Caste] and minorities, their party is the Congress. This is a strong base. The names you have mentioned are not the real Congress leaders of the state. They in the team but they are not the grassroot leaders.
The BJP is bringing up nationalism and the revoking of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir. What impact will that have?
You have to see the main issues in the election. There is a crisis for agricultural communities… 16,000 farmers have committed suicide. If there are some situations where they are getting good prices, immediately the government interferes. Take the case of onion farmers. When they started getting [good] prices, the government banned onion exports… All these policies are affecting agriculture. There is no control over the prices of fertilisers and seeds.
Secondly, all of us for a number of years, took a conscious decision to develop Maharashtra as an industrial state. That’s why from [first state chief minister] YB Chavan’s days, we have devised policies and industrial areas like Nagpur, Aurangabad. Thousands of people were working in all these areas. With the policies which have been introduced by BJP government today, more than 50% industrial units are closed… Sick industries are a major issue in the state.
Third, unemployment of the younger generation. In Pune, you will find 30-40 engineering colleges, but a lot of people who are graduating are not getting jobs.
All these issues are election issues… To divert attention from them, [the BJP] is again and again bringing up Article 370. The prime minister is saying, ‘Mr Pawar should make his position clear about it in the manifesto.’ Firstly, our manifesto has been released. And when [Article] 370 has been removed, what can we say now? I made a public statement that it is a good thing, it has been removed. In Parliament, too, nobody has opposed it. [Article] 370 is not an issue today. I ask at every public meeting, who wants to go get land there [in J&K] and start agriculture and nobody says they want to go. What about [Article 371]? If I have to buy land in Nagaland, Sikkim, I cannot in any part of the northeast. These are not issues of the public at large.
There is an impression that you have a good equation with Modi.
I have. I do not believe in many of his policies and I discuss with him when I get an opportunity. Recently, I have not met him as I have not been to Delhi and he is also out of India most of the time. I never keep personal hatred. I am all for maintaining good personal equations… Personal equation is one thing and political approach is another. The political approach has been threatened by the highest of leaders of this country.
We do not know what the outcome will be of the Enforcement Directorate (ED)’s case against you, your nephew, Ajit Pawar, and NCP leader, Praful Patel. But politics is about perception…
What is the case against me? There is a state cooperative bank with 50 directors. They lend money to industries and district banks, not individuals. There is an allegation against all directors, who belong to the BJP, Shiv Sena, Congress, and NCP. The complainant says that most of the directors Mr Pawar knows. Yes, I know them as they are important people. But if I know somebody, is that why I am a criminal? I am not a director of the bank and I am not in any decision-making body. On this basis, if you are making cases, why only mention the name of Ajit Pawar? Why not the BJP and Shiv Sena leaders who are also directors?
So the case against former union minister Praful Patel is also made on these sort of allegations?
The case against Praful Patel is most unfortunate. Those who know him know he is a businessman. His father had 80,000 people working for his business so why should he do this? I am sure he will explain all this.
What about Congress leader, Rahul Gandhi, bringing up the Rafale jet deal issue again? It did not work in the Lok Sabha polls.
I do not know what Mr Gandhi has said but we are raising the issues of farmer distress, suicides, and sick industries. Why should we raise issues like Rafale and Article 370? What does it have to do with the Maharashtra election?
Do you think the desertions that the NCP has faced will prove to be a disadvantage for you?
About seven or eight MLAs [members of legislative assembly] have left. But many have shown me notices that they have got from the investigating agencies. If they are going to use agencies like the CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation] and I-T [income tax department] and ED, those who are not able to take [the pressure], they succumb. Some [MLAs] feel that they have been in the Opposition for too long.
You are doing so many rallies and you are almost 80. Would you be willing to be the CM again?
Absolutely not. That is totally ruled out… I take strong objection to your question that I am nearing 80. You may be tired, but I am not. I still spend five days a week travelling and meeting people.
You were the only person who Rahul Gandhi met after he resigned as the Congress chief? What did you tell him?
Unfortunately today, particularly in media, the attack on Rahul Gandhi is not fair…
If you ask me about his resignation, I told him that I understand that the election results were not favourable. It is the responsibility of the leader to act so that the cadre are not demoralised. If the chief of staff is going to resign, it impacts the entire force. So I requested him to take responsibility… he should not take the entire blame and leave the battle. He should fight.