Sharad Pawar, the Nationalist Congress Party chief who led an opposition unity effort in Mumbai last month, said only the Congress can challenge the country’s ruling BJP and predicted that the national party, which had lost power in most states, would see its share of “acche din”.
Mr Pawar also told Maharashtra Navnirman Sena president Raj Thackeray in the first-of-its-kind interview at the jam-packed grounds of his alma mater Brihan Maharashtra College of Commerce in Mumbai that the Congress didn’t have the strong organizational presence it once had but the party is changing.
But the interviewer also got some advice from the veteran and was told to propagate the principle of his uncle Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray, who didn’t believe in caste, creed or community, but was a staunch nationalist.
“Even (Congress President) Rahul Gandhi is also changing. He is willing to learn,” the 77-year-old former Union Minister – who was last year seen to ridicule Mr Gandhi – said at the event organised to commemorate his 50 years in electoral politics on Wednesday. The veteran politician called Rahul Gandhi “a learner” who had evolved immensely and from whom, Mr Pawar said, he too had learnt many things.
Mr Pawar has, of late, been a lot more supportive of the Congress’ president and critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who had conferred the country’s second highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan, on him. That award had led to speculation about the possibility of a political realignment.
Last month’s effort to bring together opposition parties for a protest in Mumbai was seen as an effort to build a united opposition front to take on the BJP in parliament and test the ground for a coalition for the 2019 national elections.
In course of the conversation with Mr Thackrey, now a critic of PM Modi, Mr Pawar underlined that his relations with PM Modi were still cordial but he appeared to pull no punches when it came down to taking jabs at the Prime Minister.
To questions from Mr Thackrey, Mr Pawar also appeared to brush aside PM Modi’s famous tribute when he credited the NCP chief for handheld him during early days in politics.
The Maratha strongman said PM Modi obviously did not mean it because he started his politics somewhere else. “Thankfully, my finger has not gone into his hand,” he said in a lighter vein, according to news agency Press Trust of India.
Asked if PM Modi did listen to him, Mr Pawar said they had discussed political issues on occasions. “I advised him many times, but he never heeded me anytime,” he added.
In a veiled swipe also seen to target PM Modi, he underscored the importance of according respect to elders irrespective of differences in political ideologies and described the recent attack on India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as something that “not proper”.
Mr Pawar lamented that the principles that former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had set in political life were lacking and spoke about PM Modi – when he was the Gujarat Chief Minister – making “personal attacks on (then) Prime Minister Manmohan Singh”.
“This is the reason why Congress Chief Ministers were bitter about Modi, but I used to intervene to sort out issues,” Mr Pawar said.
When Mr Thackeray said PM Modi took visiting foreign dignitaries to Ahmedabad instead of the other parts of the country, Mr Pawar appeared to agree. For a prime minister, the nation must come first.
“Even BJP members privately speak about the prime minister hugging visiting dignitaries and taking them around Ahmedabad. I feel, when someone is the nation’s leader, the country should come first. Pride about Gujarat and Ahmedabad is okay,” he said.