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Pawar buys time on merger

Mumbai, May 29: With the agriculture and food ministry under his belt, a confident Sharad Pawar today said his Nationalist Congress Party, which broke away from the Congress five years ago, would remain that way “at least for now”.

Pawar, known as much for his changing loyalties as his knowledge about World Trade Organisation and farm issues, said his party would concentrate on strengthening the organisation in Maharashtra rather than think about merging with its parent outfit.

Political circles had been buzzing with speculation that Pawar — who got the important portfolios just in time for the September Assembly elections and also got three trusted leaders into the council of ministers — might repay Sonia Gandhi with the announcement of a merger.

But if the Maharashtra leader is to be believed, the NCP is happy to retain its separate identity, not that there is much of an ideological difference with the Congress after he dropped the issue of the Congress chief’s foreign origin before the general elections. “It (the merger) is not an issue before us as of now,” he said, adding that the NCP would maintain its separate identity.

Asked what would be its USP in the changed circumstances, the former defence minister thought for a while before replying: “The NCP will formulate its strategy regarding the future at its national executive.”

Pawar appeared pleased with his portfolios. Smiling broadly, he said he had “insisted” on food and agriculture and not defence as was widely speculated. “We are happy that the NCP’s demands have been fulfilled 100 per cent,” he said.

From the manner in which NCP leaders in the state have gone into a victory huddle after the cabinet berths were announced, Pawar, it seems, has already started his pre-Assembly work.

While the state government in its budget two days ago rained sops on farmers and announced generous packages for the drought-hit Vidarbha, Marathwada and north Maharashtra regions, Pawar today said the government would double the Rs 73,600-crore rural credit over the next three years. It would also set up an infrastructure to help farmers play a prominent role at the “global level” Pawar said, regretting that “(earlier) reforms had bypassed the farm sector”.

A keen student of WTO politics, Pawar said at the world body’s next meet, agriculture would be discussed in detail. “There are indications that certain powerful countries will pressurise developing nations to safeguard their interests,” he said. “But,” he added emphatically, “India will adopt a pragmatic approach over the issue and will protect interests of domestic producers… (and) the government will set up a mechanism to enable our farmers to be global players.”

There was more from the new Union minister. “The rural credit limit will have to be enhanced and we will talk to banking institutions regarding it,” he said. “Resources will have to be mobilised for the purpose. A sizeable section of farmers are defaulters and they need to be financially helped. It is also important that restrictions on inter-state agri-marketing is lifted.”

Stressing that a merger with the Congress was the last thing on his mind, Pawar made it clear that for the NCP, and by extension the United Progressive Alliance coalition, all roads would now lead back to the farms.

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