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Last Updated: Monday, 11 December 2006, 10:03 GMT
Sharad Pawar: Regional strongman
The BBC's Hindi Service is running a series of interviews to discover the unknown side of India's newsmakers. Here, the service's India editor Sanjeev Srivastava talks to federal agriculture minister Sharad Pawar

Sharad Pawar
Pawar has had a love and hate relationship with Congress party
At a time when regional leaders hold the key to power in Delhi and coalition governments have become the norm, Sharad Pawar is one of India's most powerful politicians.

His regional party - NCP - partners with the Congress party in the governing coalition both in Delhi and in his home state, Maharashtra.

Mr Pawar, who is also federal agriculture minister, has worked his way up and is perhaps the only politician in the country who has not lost an election since he entered politics.

For 40 years now - without even a day's break - he has been a member of either the national parliament or the state legislature.

Four times chief minister and a federal minister on several occasions, he is also the chief of the Indian cricket board - a position of power in a cricket obsessed nation.

Mr Pawar has had a love-hate relationship with the Congress party and the Nehru-Gandhi family - he has left and re-joined the Congress party many times.

Not only does he have a mind of his own, he is also fiercely ambitious and because of his mass following, he has managed to flourish even when outside of the Congress party.

Facing flak

The last time he parted ways with the Congress was in the late 1990s when he publicly opposed the anointment of Sonia Gandhi as the party chief.

I have known him for more than a decade now. I have travelled to his home constituency, Baramati, a small town near Pune in western India where he is revered and from where he has won successive elections since 1967.

I have also seen him squirm under public scrutiny when his government's deal with American energy utility, Enron, was drawing a lot of flak in the Indian media.

I also remember the manner in which he was almost overnight sent from Delhi - where he was the defence minister in PV Narasimha Rao's cabinet - to take charge of Maharashtra when rioting was threatening to destroy the secular fabric of India's largest and most cosmopolitan city, Mumbai, in the aftermath of Babri mosque demolition in December 1992.

Sonia Gandhi
Sonia Gandhi is a 'good host'
I also met him shortly after he lost state elections in mid-1990s, paving way for the ultra-nationalist Hindu party, Shiv Sena. Then he launched his own party in a bid to stop the Congress and Sonia Gandhi from coming to power a few years ago.

And again one has seen how the wheel has turned a full circle. He now supports the Sonia Gandhi-led Congress party both in Delhi and Mumbai.

Mr Pawar talked about the Nehru-Gandhi family in a cautious manner.

He spoke about his admiration for India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who he thought played a vital role in giving Indians a "scientific temper" and helped lay the foundation of a "modern, secular and progressive" country.

'Dashing and charisma'

He said he respected Mrs Indira Gandhi for her "dashing and charisma" but fell out with her when she clamped emergency rule in 1975. About Rajiv Gandhi he said that the former prime minister had the same modern outlook as Mr Nehru.

He was equally candid about his equation with Sonia Gandhi.

"One has to admit to her contribution to the Congress party. One has to also respect her for her courage. Her husband [Rajiv Gandhi] was assassinated. So was her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi.

"But clearly we felt that in a vast country like India, its complex issues, its culture and history maybe she was not the right person to lead the Congress party and the country.

"There were a number of people who thought like that. Some of us spoke up as well and we paid a price and were made to leave the party.

"But today when I see her I appreciate that she spends a lot of time to understand the problems of the country and its people. And the results are for everyone to see. Her work is benefiting her party."

Greg Chappell
Chappell is a 'fine coach', many players tell Pawar
What is Sonia Gandhi like?

The answer was cautious and correct.

"The Gandhi family has a tradition of being good hosts. When you call upon them they treat you with a lot of respect. Sonia Gandhi is continuing with that tradition."

We never came around discussing it directly but we did talk about his greatest unrealised ambition - becoming the prime minister of India.

I touched the subject in a roundabout manner, asking him why no Maratha (people from Maharashtra) had ever been able to occupy the throne in Delhi despite the community being such a dominant political force.

He laughed and said he knew which Maratha I was alluding to.

"Our problem is we never got our strategy right. We concentrated too much on being the king-maker rather than becoming the king ourselves."

So is he still hopeful that his turn may come?

"Now I am only concentrating on grooming the next generation."

'Fine coach'

On cricket, Mr Pawar is disappointed by the recent defeats the Indian team has suffered.

"Indian cricketers need more exposure and as cricket administrators we need to beef up the domestic circuit. Only then will fresh talent come up."

So does he think it's curtains for the Indian team coach, Greg Chappell?

Shabana Azmi
Pawar likes the company of Shabana Azmi

"I don't think so. In any case his contract runs up to the World Cup next year. Many players tell me he is a fine coach. But a final decision on that can only be taken by the entire board and not me alone."

Sharad Pawar, however, did make an announcement in our interview - he said he would not stand for a second term as the chief of the cricket board.

In women, it is the combination of beauty and brains which attracts him - actress Shabana Azmi is one woman whose company he likes.

His wife Pratibha remains his first and last love.

"I could never muster the courage to speak to girls in my college in Pune. Most of them were Parsis and spoke English. I came from a village and could barely converse in English."

His other passion is Indian classical music.

After our interview I appreciated why he is often referred to as the strong man of Maharashtra.

He sat through our nearly one-hour interview without once making us realise that he was in acute discomfort.

Straight from the BBC studio in Delhi he was driven to a hospital. The doctors admitted him immediately, did some tests and found it necessary to immediately conduct an angioplasty.

He was discharged after about a week in hospital and has now resumed normal work.

The radio interview with Sharad Pawar can be found via bbchindi.com. The programme is called Ek Mulaqat.

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