Hoping to stitch an Opposition alliance in the run-up to 2019, Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee speaks to The Indian Express on the exit of Nitish Kumar from the Opposition tent, her willingness to work with rivals Congress and Left, her fight against the BJP, the agitation in the Darjeeling Hills, the challenges she faces, and what she calls the achievements of her government. Edited excerpts:
Q) You are heading into a meeting of the Opposition (on August 11). Your slogan ‘BJP Bharat Choro’ was based on a united Opposition nationwide. Hasn’t Nitish Kumar’s exit dented that?
No, I don’t think so. Because somebody will go, somebody will come. You have Left, Right, some left out. So, it is part and parcel of your politics…In politics, no one is permanent enemy and no one is permanent friend. Sometimes they go out, it is their prerogative, I don’t mind…I don’t think there is any debacle.
Q) Three years into the NDA, there is a perception that the government is popular; the BJP, with its electoral successes, is stronger. And the Opposition more fragmented, weaker.
This government uses Twitter, Facebook, social media, internet like anything…They are spending a lot of money, they have a lot of money for that. These are sponsored projects…If you see from that angle, they are stronger. In my government, I do Twitter on my own. I have no sponsorship, nothing. Even I could use it, but I didn’t…
If you see from the grassroots angle, then people have started saying that (the NDA government) are very arrogant.
The people are scared, they are very much afraid. The businessmen are scared, they are scared. Even you, the press people, I am not saying about you individually…At the end of the day, I don’t think this ‘scare politics’, this ‘agency politics’ will be a success. Because this government has become a government of the (investigative) agencies: agencies of the government, by the government, for the government. The problem is this, if you talk to them quietly, personally, they will say something. But not in public…They will say please don’t allow us to say all this, otherwise I will be raided by the income tax, otherwise CBI will chase me. Otherwise, ED will chase us. So this is the phenomenon nowadays. Look at all the politicians fighting…You tell me…one person you show me, who has been left out? Only those who flatter them are left out…We know we have to face this battle every day. Sometimes, when democracy has to fight with autocracy, what can be done? We have to fight, somebody has to.
Q) You called this a government of the agencies.
I said, people are saying that it is a government of the agencies, by the agencies for the agencies. Because people are scared and afraid. Why will I be afraid, you tell me? If I am in politics, if I am in a democratic movement, I shouldn’t be scared, no? It is my birthright, it is my political right, it is my democratic right, it is my constitutional right…that I must open my mouth…my voice…I can raise my voice. But why, if someone raises their voice, their voice will just be curbed through agencies — this is not proper. Because today someone maybe in government, tomorrow they may not be. This creates a new precedent.
Q) The BJP’s argument is that the government is pursuing the corrupt and there are allegations of corruption against many Opposition leaders. So it’s a battle between the corrupt and the not-corrupt.
This is a mockery of democracy. We have a proverb: Chorer maer boro gola…it’s the mother of the thief who is the loudest…Now those who are really corrupt, they are the ones raising their voice…In Bengali, there is a word, ‘pocket maar’. They pick pockets and they have a gang…this may sound crude but I am just illustrating something. So when they pick someone’s pocket, their gang will shout, ‘pickpocket, pickpocket, pickpocket’. Ultimately, their intention is that the pickpocket should get away…So the BJP’s intention is (to say that) everyone is corrupt except them…But from demonetisation to GST, if you see, it is a case of big, big, big corruption. If you see the defence deals, there is corruption. How do you give all defence deals to a few (firms) from a one particular place…
Q) The BJP accuses you of Muslim appeasement.
I can accuse the BJP of torturing Dalits, Muslims. I am a Hindu, they say she is not a real Hindu. So they are dividing Hindus and Hindus, Muslims and Muslims, they are dividing Dalits and Dalits, they are dividing Christians and Christians. They want to divide India, Bharat bhaag karo, Bharat bhaag banao. We don’t support this. Why will India be divided like this? Ours is a vast country, many languages, many castes, creeds, religions. When I am in the chair, I have only one religion, that is humanity. I have only one religion, that is I have to work for the people and that’s my Constitutional obligation. And I can’t say that when I am in the chair, I have to see only my caste, not see the other caste. I have to give more importance to those who are minorities also. That is our constitutional provision because it is a secular country…
The BJP wants that people should not ask about employment, people shouldn’t ask for bread and butter. People should not ask for relief, people should not ask for social justice. So the only one medicine is there, what medicine? Danga, danga, danga — only communal tension you create…Everyone knows that Abraham Lincoln’s quote: ‘You can fool some of the people, some of the time. You can fool all the people some of the time. But you can’t fool all the people all the time.”
Q) But the BJP is making inroads in West Bengal.
Sometimes, you know, the press has to say something. The CPI(M) is lost. Who will be second, third or fourth? That is not my business…The CPI(M) has a good hobnobbing relationship with the BJP. So a few of their cadres have joined with the BJP. But I don’t think that matters…We are No.1. So who will be two, three or four — that is not my business. Opposition will be there — that is the people’s choice and it is the party’s choice. If I want to divide my vote to another party, what to do? That’s what the CPI(M) is doing, the Congress is also doing that sometimes, in my state.
Q) At the national level, however, the Congress looks very weak. What does that mean for you?
I don’t want to say anything about their internal matters because it won’t look nice…But, of course, when Rajivji, was murdered – since then, Congress has been weakened, no doubt. But Soniaji tried her best and Soniaji is doing her best for the survival of the Congress…She can mix with people, she can stay with all. She is hope for the Congress party, that I believe. That she can lead the Congress…The party is running the government in Karnataka, Punjab, Puducherry…They have some organisation, maybe weak, maybe strong. They have lost but they have a party organisation…from Assam to Manipur, Manipur to UP, UP to Rajasthan, Rajasthan to Bihar, Bihar to MP, they are there. You can’t ignore.
Q) So a strong Congress helps the TMC?
No, I think that TMC will help all regional parties and Congress, also, at the national level because we want that all the regional parties must be together and work as a collective family.
Q) Will there be one leader for the entire Opposition?
Yes, leader means, somebody has to call the meeting, somebody has to coordinate the meeting, somebody has to mix with the people. There must be a grand alliance, there must be a chairman. There must be a convener.
What I said was Congress is a national party, we are also a national party. But they are running three or four governments. What is practical? I have differences in Bengal politics. Congress is fighting a battle along with CPI(M) against me. At times, they are with the BJP, too. So I have to battle with them, but at the national level for the greater interest, I do support them…Even Arvind Kejriwal, why he will be out (of this alliance)? He should be in. For the greater interest, everyone must be together. If CPI(M) is there and I don’t quarrel with them at the national level, because of the greater interest then, maybe, Arvind Kejriwal (can be in too). There may be differences between the Congress (and Kejriwal). But for the greater interest, they can work together.
Q) You mentioned Sonia Gandhi, how’s your rapport with Rahul Gandhi?
I don’t have any problem with Rahul. He is a young boy. He is trying his best, sometimes some people may accept him, some may not. It depends on timing. If you say that under Rahul’s leadership, so many seats were lost…given the situation, I don’t think it’s good that we only blame him for that. I think it is the Congress party’s choice who will be its leader, it is not our choice.
Q) You don’t mind the CPI(M) being a part of the national opposition?
I have no problem. Because I want that for the greater interest, the BJP must go.
Q) This willingness to work with the CPI(M) is a shift from your earlier stand.
No, the CPI(M) is now a very small party. In Bengal, they are totally lost. Kerala and Tripura, they are there. But Kerala also, you know the problem — every day, it is going on. They can’t run the government smoothly. Even Kerala, in the Parliament election, I think Congress will do better. In Kerala, they change every five years…Like DMK and AIADMK. DMK will do just the reverse to that, this is my political analysis. And Tripura also, they are losing, I think so.
Q) Is there a chance for Mamata Banerjee as PM candidate for the Opposition in 2019?
I am nobody. I don’t want anything also. Let me continue as a commoner. But I want that Opposition must be strong. This isn’t about who will be the PM or not. First, let us win the battle, then this matter will come. Let us decide this collectively. The regional parties, let us take them into confidence and we have to lead the regional parties. Regional parties must lead their region and the Congress party, from the Centre, must help the regional party also. Where the Congress is strong, we must help them. Where the regional party is strong, then Congress should help them. That should be the policy. I believe if we can do that, then in 2019, the BJP can get a farewell.
Q) But the BJP, too, has been reaching out to the regional parties.
That’s OK because they are in power. They are breaking the party…They are spending lots of money for that purpose. This is not good for anybody. I am not saying just for BJP, let me be very frank. It is bad for every political party, when I am in power, I want to break the party. The BJP is in power and tomorrow they are not in power, who are supporting them today, they will change their colour within a second…What I can say? They started so many cases against Lalu Prasad, National Herald cases. Arrey bhai, this is also a paper, maybe. Sometimes the political party, a tradition is going on, a political party you don’t touch. Even the BJP wasn’t touched at the time of the Congress rule. Now you are disturbing everyone.
My income tax party? Every year they are doing this, in the name of scrutiny. Every year, it is not scrutiny, they want to threaten us like this, so that we should stop our voice. Now against Lalu Prasad, against P Chidambaram, against Sonia Gandhi, against Rahul Gandhi, against this DMK leadership, this AIADMK leadership, against BJD people, against those who are not supporting them…If you don’t support them, tomorrow there will be an agency. But we, too, must not be hypocrites. A political party can’t change its ideology just like we change saris or clothes.
With the Central government, I am very positive. I am not negative or destructive. I am telling you because I have been in politics for years, if the Central government asks me for any cooperation, in the Central government, I will fully cooperate. But for politics, my ideology is different. Politically, I will criticise. But government to government, I cooperate. Provided they don’t interfere in my federal structure. Now the federal structure is disturbed like anything.
Q) Why do you think Nitish Kumar switched?
Why are you asking, only Nitish, Nitish? Let him do…(his) is a very small party. Now the seats will be divided three ways. BJP will get some seats, Lalu will get some seats, Congress will get some seats and he will get some seats. The chair will be divided.
Q) Are you going to Lalu Prasad’s rally in Patna later this month?
Yes, because Laluji told me three months ago and I have decided to go. Yes, I will go.
Q) Will you request Mayawati to join the rally?
That is Laluji’s rally, he will invite all of them. If all the parties join, I will be very happy. I am going to Ranchi, to attend a tribals’ meeting on August 31.
Q) What do you make of the Gujarat Rajya Sabha election results?
This is like a suspense film. Really horrible, people saw this film live, until late night, till 2 am. It is a big victory for Ahmed Patelji and a big victory against autocracy and a victory of democracy. A defeat of arrogance and, I think, this is also a turning point. Let the Opposition parties and the parties supporting BJP also think twice. I want that everyone should come together. I am not basically against BJP, they are a political party, if they do the good thing, then we will support. They have some good leaders also, I respect. Individually, I have no vendetta or agenda for that.
Q) You have worked with the BJP, what are some of the key differences now?
Atalji was very nice. Atalji was a very sensible man. Even Advaniji also…there were some problems between Atalji and Advaniji, but we never faced any problems. Because that time we worked with Rajnath Singhji, Arun Jaitleyji, Sushma Swarajji and other people also, Venkaiah Naiduji and others. They are very fond of us and we never quarrelled with them. Now I don’t know…Narendra Modiji has not behaved rudely with us, but when we talk…they behave nicely. But the party has too much arrogance.
Q) You have issues with Narendra Modi or the BJP?
He is also from the BJP. I would say it’s (with) the BJP. I don’t have any personal vendetta against anyone.
Q) Have you ever interacted with BJP president Amit Shah?
I don’t know him. I never met him. But I have seen his photograph.
Why don’t you, from The Indian Express, arrange for us to have tea. (She laughs)
Q) Now he is coming to Rajya Sabha as MP.
Then Derek (O’Brien) and other people can meet him every day…
Q) Switching subjects, how are your talks with the Centre on the Darjeeling hills agitation?
I have talked to Home Minister Rajnath (Singh)ji many times on the issue and he is always positive. And we discuss the matter because there are so many other angles also. Darjeeling, luckily and fortunately, is one part of my state but it is not the whole of state, it is just one portion. They (the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha) were in power for about five years (as part of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration) and now when there is an election knocking on the door, they have become very unpopular. Even in the last municipal election, they lost in many seats. So it’s nothing new. If you see Darjeeling history, every 10 years or 15 years or 20 years, they will do this.
Q) So what is the solution?
Solution is peace, solution is development. Solution is let peace be restored, there may be talks, no problem.
Q) Who will you talk to?
If they want to talk, I have no problem. I am not prejudiced, options are always open. We can talk to all the people, no problem. All political parties of Darjeeling, we can talk. We have called for many meetings, they didn’t join. But I don’t support hooliganism or the vandalism. How have they stopped education of children, students? They don’t allow the ration system. My one driver has been burnt, there is torture, burning, looting, arson…They have killed so many people from Panchayat office, to electricity office, to railway station, to bank, they have burnt.
They are getting some encouragement from outside. That the Central government also knows.
Q) What about their ethnic demand for a new state?
It is not an ethnic demand, it is a design…through this design, they collect money and everything. They use arms, they are now using the national flag, they are using the Army dress that they are wearing. They are using foreign communication devices. If they don’t get anything from outside, how are they getting all this?
Q) Are you pointing fingers at China?
I am not referring to China or Nepal or anything. It is for the government of India to find out but, of course, border countries are involved. Because we have documents — some people were caught red-handed and we have the foreign country’s currency, then the foreign communication devices, the mobile connections and also people, who are injured, are just sent to Nepal. Why?
Q) You have flagged this to the Centre?
They know everything. We have already given all information.
Q) There’s a deterioration of relationship with China, tension in Bhutan. West Bengal is surrounded by all the states.
We maintain good relationship with Bhutan and Bangladesh. Foreign policy is something we always support the Central government on…we don’t interfere. But we want that the government of India must keep in touch through all diplomatic channels. Whatever the Government of India feels is good for the country, they will do. We don’t say anything about that.
But in my state, if any problem is there, we have to face the problem. Because if you see Nathu la, if you see Arunachal, Nepal, Bhutan, all these are adjacent to my state and Bangladesh. Siliguri is the Chicken’s neck and that is our problem. That’s why the Central government must be strong to combat the situation. We are ready to extend our cooperation. Here I am, we are very much patriotic and we love our country like anything. It is our motherland. We are not going to compromise on anything.
Q) You spoke about jobs, bread and butter issues. As Chief Minister, what’s the biggest governance challenge in Bengal?
This is the only state, I am proud to say, where we give, full medical treatment to people. Tell me, which other state gives from heart transplantation to kidney transplantation? Full medicine free…Full bed, free treatment, health for all…Of the 90.3 million people in the state, over 8 crore get rice at Rs 2 per kg and atta at Rs 3 per kg…free food, free health, free education. Even for higher education, my Kanyashree project has received the highest UN Public Award. There are 41 lakh girl children in the state. We give them Rs 750 scholarship every month, we give Rs 25,000 when they become 18 years old, if they don’t marry. And we have started for university also. For SC, STs, we have Shikshashree scholarship. For tribals, OBC and minorities, we give scholarships. For minorities also, within the OBC reservation, we gave 97% Muslims the reservation. So they are getting quite good education facilities.
Overall, in 2016-17, the state’s GSDP at constant prices grew by 9.27% in comparison to India’s 7.1%. Industry grew at 7.24% compared to India’s 5.2%; service sector grew at 11.19% against India’s 8.8% as count of GVA.
I am proud to say that 97% families in my total population have been covered by one, two, three even four schemes in Bengal. And this when we have Rs 40,000 crore as debt.
Q) How do you manage the debt with this increased expenditure?
It is the only state where I have already done 300 meetings at the grassroots level. With the state secretariat, we go to the districts, we meet all block-level officers, panchayat samity chairmen, zilla parishad members, local MLAs, MPs…it is true that there is an increase in expenditure for welfare activities. In these meetings, we convey that while development is needed, so is austerity. Today, tax collection is up, growth is up.
Q) There is a common complaint, across cities and towns, even villages, of The Syndicate. Of young unemployed men, TMC supporters, running extortion rackets, harassing citizens. It was there during the CPI(M) time, too, but now it’s full of Trinamool men. When influential people complain, action is taken but not many have the clout to complain.
In the press, media, there is also a syndicate. If one TV channel picks up a news story, irrespective of whether it’s correct or wrong, it will spread like anything. So some section of the press started this rumour.
Q) Do you think it’s an issue?
It was an issue, during the CPI(M) time. Even in our time, some CPI(M) boys, they changed their (affiliation) and they started. But whenever a complaint comes to us, within five minutes, the matter is settled. There are some people, unemployed…it’s not like that in Bengal…but when it comes to 100 days work also, we are No.1…we are trying our best.
Q) You have told your MLAs (to keep a watch on this)?
No, no, our MLAs are not doing that. But if you have a complaint for only 0.1 per cent, it is very minor. But we have sent a message that we are not going to tolerate this and if anything is violated, we immediately arrest them…my TMC MLA, I arrested, even my MPs I arrested and even my local corporation councillor, my panchayat. If there’s any wrongdoing by anybody, I might not take action against the opposition, but I have taken action against my people. So that the message should go, that they should be very disciplined. Charity begins at home, I maintain that.