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If I had sent them to jail, Congress would have been finished: Chavan

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By SAMYABRATA RAY GOSWAMI
  • Published 14.10.14
  •  
Prithviraj Chavan

Prithviraj Chavan, who was parachuted into the Maharashtra chief minister’s chair when it fell vacant after the Adarsh housing scandal, has spoken out on the turbulent times in an interview with The Telegraph.

Speaking a little after midnight on Saturday, a tired and pensive Chavan conceded that the compulsions of power politics had prevented him from taking anti-corruption action and that a crackdown could have brought down his coalition government and “decimated” the Congress.

Making statements that bordered on a mea culpa, Chavan was extraordinarily candid for a chief minister who had just resigned, witnessed the bitter break-up of the alliance with the NCP and been tasked with leading demoralised Congress into elections after the nationwide debacle in the summer.

Chavan spoke to this correspondent at Karad (South), the southern Maharashtra Assembly seat from where he is fighting Wednesday’s Assembly elections. Karad and Chavan go a long way back: he had been a three-time MP from there, his father was a four-time MP and his mother a six-time MP from the Lok Sabha seat.

Excerpts from the interview follow:

Q: You have been spoken of as Maharashtra’s cleanest chief minister. Yet, you adopted a soft approach towards the Adarsh scam and the irrigation scam….

Chavan: You see, this is largely misunderstood. In the Adarsh scam, I instituted a judicial inquiry. The judicial committee report was considered by the cabinet which initially rejected it. After Rahul Gandhi’s intervention, the cabinet partially accepted the report. Against the main person charged in the report, (former chief minister and Chavan’s predecessor) Ashok Chavan, the CBI was conducting a separate enquiry. You cannot have two separate FIRs by two different agencies against the same person for the same crime. The CBI was conducting its own investigations against Ashok Chavan. So, the state government, in such circumstances, cannot institute a new inquiry. For public appearances, for the sake of seeming to have an aggressive stance against corruption, I cannot undermine the law and the privileges it gives an accused. I know perception matters but just for that, I cannot give up the rule of law.

PRITHVIRAJ SPEAKS OUT

The judicial inquiry found a quid pro quo with regard to Ashok Chavan... but that is for the CBI to look into. If the CBI dumps the case, that is a different matter. I cannot take the onus for that. These are political decisions… it is difficult to understand for the people. It creates perceptions about me but I cannot help it.…

But yes, I must say that Adarsh brought under the scanner Vilasrao Deshmukh, Sushil Shinde and Ashok Chavan — the top Congress leadership in the state. If I had taken action against them, the party would have been decimated in Maharashtra. We could not shed them. If I had sent them to jail, it would have hit the party organisation — this was a major response. The party would have split — nobody articulated that openly then. Neither could I.

Q: And the irrigation scam?

Chavan: As I have understood, the economic survey said that in the last 10 years, since the Congress-NCP government came to power, Rs 42,000 crore was spent on irrigation but there was no increase in irrigation projects whatsoever. During this period, the NCP’s Ajit Pawar was the irrigation minister. As chief minister, I had to respond to that grave charge that pointed a finger at my government. The economic survey is a government publication, not a media report.

What I did was — I did not order a police inquiry, I did not ask for a judicial commission report — all for the sake of keeping the alliance intact…. I just asked the irrigation department to clarify whether the report was correct, whether any wrong information went to the Planning Commission.

I asked them for a white paper on the matter. The white paper was construed as a chargesheet or investigation by Ajit Pawar. But I was not trying to fix anyone. As chief minister, I was just trying to find out the truth. (The NCP and the Congress have snapped their alliances and are fighting the elections on their own this time.)

The findings of the white paper merited an inquiry — a judicial inquiry. There was some match-fixing between the BJP and the NCP. Because the BJP to some extent was also involved in this — in 1995-99, during the Sena-BJP regime….

From 1999 onwards Ajit Pawar was the minister concerned. A SIT was set up with members of all parties, including the BJP, but the NCP worked the back channels and ensured that it never investigated anything. It remained a technical and expert committee. It was an SIT in name because an SIT has judicial powers to summon and question. I could have been proactive and I could have insisted that it was a judicial commission and that Pawar should be summoned and questioned. But I was running an alliance… my hands were tied.

But the setting up of the SIT was seen as an indictment of irrigation minister Ajit Pawar — he took umbrage and resigned... (then) realised soon that without power he was a nobody. So he withdrew his resignation after sometime and rejoined the state cabinet as finance minister. I could have stopped him from rejoining. But it was a coalition government. I had some compulsions. I could not have put my foot down. The government would have come down at that moment. I was also the leader of the alliance. But I did not give Ajit Pawar any clean chit — he gave himself the clean chit. Short of sacking Ajit Pawar, I did everything. But sacking him would have brought down the government.

Corruption will not leave this country till a party with an agenda to wipe out corruption comes to power on a massive majority.

Q: In the context of corruption, the BJP has raked up the allegations against Robert Vadra in the Haryana elections. Is Vadra a liability for the Congress now?

Chavan: I will not answer that question.

Q: Was the Congress-NCP alliance about secularism or ambition?

Chavan: Only ambition. The NCP was in an alliance with us so far... only for ambition. The NCP was formed only because of the ambition of Mr Sharad Pawar to become Prime Minister. And the current alliance in Maharashtra was broken only due to the ambition of his nephew Ajit Pawar to be chief minister.

When the time-honoured formula is that any party with the largest number of seats gets to have its chief minister for whole term, Ajit Pawar proposed that the chief minister’s tenure be split. This was strange as Sharad Pawar had never for once proposed this to Mrs Sonia Gandhi. Clearly, Ajit Pawar’s objective was to be chief minister for half a term and make lots of money.

Q: Why did Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi not campaign as extensively as Narendra Modi in Maharashtra?

Chavan: Why should we react to what Modi is doing? Every party has a chief ministerial face — that face leads the campaign. The Shiv Sena has Uddhav Thackeray, the MNS has Raj Thackeray, the NCP has Sharad Pawar as Ajit Pawar was pulled back in the last stages of the campaign because of the people’s opposition to him. The Congress has me. Who is the BJP’s face for chief minister? Names float, but there is no single person who is seen as the clear leader of Maharashtra from the BJP. Modi wants to project himself as the only face that gathers votes for his party. So, he is going everywhere. Our situation is not like that.

Q: Modi has indicated that he would like to see Devendra Fadnavis as Maharashtra’s BJP chief minister. Other big names are Nitin Gadkari and Eknath Khadse….

Chavan: Count Prakash Javadekar in too — he is a hopeful as well. You see, there lies the catch. Khadse has health issues. Although he is a backward class and mass leader, he is not their first choice. Javadekar is a lightweight. Gadkari and Fadnavis are RSS nominees and front runners. But the problem is that all three — Javadekar, Gadkari and Fadnavis — are Brahmins. The mention of caste politics, however divisive and offensive, is a political reality in Maharashtra. To make a Brahmin the chief minister is not going to be easy in a largely Maratha-dominated political milieu. There is not a single Brahmin in the Maratha dominated Maharashtra cabinet of 43 today. They do not count in local politics. So, they are a baggage for the BJP as well. These harsh local realities are stopping the BJP from projecting a face.

Fadnavis is an outstanding parliamentarian — a good person. He does not have Khadse’s ministerial experience but he is a good person and will make a competent chief minister if the BJP comes to power. Yet, his party is wary of his caste... this kind of caste-related dilemma is not haunting the Congress. So, the BJP needs to put its eggs in the Modi basket.

Q: Your poll campaign is pegged on the slogan “Maharashtra No. 1”, underlining that Maharashtra, not Gujarat, is at the top of the economic heap. But why did it become an election slogan so late in the day?

Chavan: I took it up because during the Lok Sabha elections, Modi had brought it up by saying that during his tenure in Gujarat, he had put the state ahead of Maharashtra — which was totally incorrect. I then challenged him for a straight, fact-based televised debate, which he never took up. The Gujarat-Maharashtra issue has another dimension- connected to the highly emotional Samyukta Maharashtra movement that led to the formation of Maharashtra, dividing the erstwhile Bombay Presidency into Gujarat and Maharashtra. Comparisons are fraught with issues of Marathi pride. The claim by Modi and Amit Shah that they would take Maharashtra Gujarat’s way may create problems for BJP in this state. It is not going to be as easy as they think.

Yes, my “Maharashtra No.1”campaign kicked in late but it will have an impact.

Q: Aren’t “Maharashtra No.1” campaign and slogans of “Marathi pride” something one would associate with a party like Shiv Sena?

Chavan: What can we do? We have to fight many years of anti-incumbency. How do I counter that?

Q: If the Congress loses in Maharashtra, will it be because of the impact of the Lok Sabha elections or will the blame land on your doorstep?

Chavan: Difficult to say. One of the ways to argue would be: does the Modi wave continue? It could be said that people have given the Congress so many years, give him at least one term. People will accept the logic although Modi has not shown any great performance in the first 100 days — he has done more politicking than governance. The country does not have a full-time defence minister when the borders are hot. My detractors in the state and within my party will accuse me of not doing enough. But who is to judge? I tried to check corruption as much as I could. It is impossible. It is not possible to understand the grip of the builder mafia on Maharashtra politics from anywhere else in the country. Yet, I tried to bring in rule-based governance. Now people will judge.

Q: What happens to the Antony commission report on the reasons for the Lok Sabha debacle?

Chavan: I was part of the earlier Antony commission as well in 2006. Even though the current one is very soft on the leadership, nothing much will come out. It will be buried.

Q: Will an out-of-power Congress wither away like the out-of-power Left?

Chavan: Hopefully not. We will see. Will the Left be working together with the Congress to take on the BJP? I do not know.

Q: Is there a churning within the Congress?

Chavan: I do not see it right now. We are paying too great a price. But yes, people have decidedly voted to keep smaller parties out. Look at what happened to Mayawati, to Mulayam, to Mamata. People have realised that smaller parties create instability. Hopefully, this realisation will work in favour of the Congress someday — a lot of internal re-organisation is due and it will happen slowly. As far as I am concerned, I would like to stay within the state and work on the ground. I do have a grassroot Left-of-centre political legacy. My father belonged to the Workers and Peasants’ party at one time. I believe in that politics and I am in politics not just because of an accident of birth. I studied in a municipal school in Karad and then went on to study engineering at Berkeley. I am comfortable in both places.

Q: Will Priyanka Gandhi step in?

Chavan: I don’t think so. She can’t suddenly step in. I do not see a cataclysmic change in leadership. It has happened once, it has happened twice. I am not sure it will happen soon now.