Leader of Congress in Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury says the 23 leaders who wrote the letter could have raised their concerns at CWC, blames Mamata’s actions for rise of BJP in Bengal, calls BJP “majoritarianism” in PAC an “affront to parliamentary system”, and says “Modi spell”, internal issues behind Cong problems.
One of the Congress’s only two MPs from West Bengal and its state chief for four years, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury was seen as a surprise choice for leader of the party in the Lok Sabha. However, in his long political career, Chowdhury has built a reputation for tenacity and for being a mass leader who has held his own against the CPM, Trinamool Congress and now BJP onslaught in the state. As Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, he has been critical of BJP for “undermining” parliamentary panels.
MANOJ C G: As many as 23 leaders of the Congress have written to party chief Sonia Gandhi calling for sweeping changes. Your views?
In the history of the Congress, non-Gandhis have also held the post of party president and the party has always encouraged it. P V Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri are recent examples. In reality, none other than a member of the (Gandhi) family has ever made any significant achievement. There lies the problem. After Rao, till Sonia Gandhi took over the reins, the Congress could not succeed in restoring lost ground. We cannot deny that stark ground reality. That needs to be understood.
I cannot subscribe to the views expressed by these leaders… because it is a collective failure. Now… after the failure, some of our leaders are trying to heap all the allegations upon the Gandhi family and Rahul Gandhi. By doing that they are simply strengthening the argument made by the BJP. They are offering extra fodder to the BJP. Soniaji has the potential and she can play a pivotal role in stitching a national alliance against the BJP.
MANOJ C G: But what about the concerns that they have raised?
I am not in a position to brush aside all their concerns. They certainly enjoy that right being party leaders. But one thing I want to say is that they are all senior leaders of the party. They have all contributed to the Congress. All these senior leaders have enjoyed good proximity with Soniaji and Rahul Gandhi. They had more access to Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi than leaders like me. Why did they feel the need to write this kind of letter?… They would have got ample opportunity at the CWC on Monday to speak their mind… Everything could be discussed. She would have immediately conceded their demand if they wanted to discuss all these issues. This kind of letter has been written unnecessarily… This will not help the party much. They could have easily raised all these issues before Soniaji and Rahul or in the forum. This will simply help the BJP.
MANOJ C G: What have the past few months been like for you?
The pandemic has dramatically altered our lives. Once the lockdown was announced, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from my district and my state West Bengal, who were working in other states, found themselves in a difficult situation. I was in Delhi at the time and I got an indication from many such labourers that they are deprived of many things. They did not have money in their pockets or even food. They were desperate to return to their native villages. They were fearful about the uncertain future. There was immense frustration.
Many such migrant labourers began to contact me for assistance. I wanted to help these people. I set up an office at my residence in Delhi and employed a few people — my friends, my staff, people who worked at my house — to take calls from those affected by the pandemic. Their duty was to collect the names, phones numbers and places where these workers were calling from. I am virtually a BPL (Below Poverty Line) Member of Parliament. I did not have the financial resources to help these people. So I began to contact the local collector, MLA, MP and influential people from the regions the workers belonged to. I sought their cooperation. So I have been engaged in these activities for the past few months. The work satisfied me and helped people.
LIZ MATHEW: Parliamentary committees have become a source of conflict between the Congress and the BJP. As Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), what has your experience been like?
The discussions in standing committees or PACs are held without inhibitions or without any obligation to any party. That is why, over the decades, standing committees have been considered as mini-Parliament. But these days unsavoury situations have been emerging. I am not here to accuse this side or that side, but in a healthy parliamentary democracy every issue concerning the country and its people should be discussed. Parliament is a forum for debate, discussion, dissent. Given the majority that the ruling party has, it is incumbent upon them to run everything. If anything is considered a violation of parliamentary norms that is different. But if somebody is creating problems out of vengeance, to muzzle the voice of an individual or political party, I think this is not desirable.
LIZ MATHEW: With a majority in the House, the BJP also has majority in most of the committees. How does that play out?
The government has been bulldozing legislations. These (legislations) need to be discussed thoroughly for the sake of the nation. As PAC Chairman, the day we initiated our legislative business, I said we should conduct discussions on Covid as it relates to the interest of common people. That we must sensitise and urge the government to take more and more active measures. But some newspaper reported that the PAC Chairman is eager to discuss PM CARES fund. But I did not have any evil intention. The newspaper reporter had asked me whether I was going to discuss the PM CARES fund. I had told the reporter that I did not have such an intention but if during the course of discussion someone asks what funds have the Ministry of Health or state governments received from PM CARES to deal with the pandemic, that is a different issue. But that response ruffled the BJP’s feathers.
Later, when I proposed in the meeting that we all should think about discussing the Covid situation, they (BJP members) started protesting vehemently. They said that the PAC does not have authority to discuss the issue. I tried to persuade them that the PAC has the right to take up any issue suo motu. There are a plethora of instances of this. Even the 2G spectrum case first came to limelight in a suo motu manner. But they said there should be voting… I was vehemently opposed. Now, as a single member from the Congress in the PAC, of course I will be defeated in a vote.
Now, the same issue is being discussed in the Standing Committee on Home Affairs. So yes, I agree that the (BJP’s) majoritarianism is also visible inside the PAC. Various issues are literally bulldozed. One after another, the government is making announcements in the middle of a pandemic, without taking Parliament into confidence. It is certainly an affront to the parliamentary system. The government may argue that it is an extraordinary situation. Yes, we agree it is, but it is also a fact that the government could have had a short discussion with MPs. Was it impossible?
SANTANU CHOWDHURY: Will the Congress and the Trinamool join hands in the West Bengal Assembly elections to take on the BJP?
In 2011 (Assembly elections), with the help of the Congress party Mamata Banerjee came to power. We helped them a lot at the time. But once she came to power, she started showing her true colours. Idhar Modi hai udhar Didi hai (Like PM Modi in Delhi, there is Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal). He doesn’t listen to anyone and she changed her colours after coming to power. She did atyachaar (atrocities) on the Congress party. Her aim: to remove the Congress and every other political party from West Bengal. Today the BJP has 18 MPs from Bengal, it cannot be denied… But who is responsible for this? We all have to think about it. The Congress protected the secular space in Bengal. Mamata Banerjee started working to bring Bengal in her kabza (possession)… Because of this, the secular space began to shrink and the BJP made inroads into Bengal… And now the BJP is emerging as the main opposition against Mamata Banerjee. It is very unfortunate, but what should we do?
VANDITA MISHRA: It’s been a year since Sonia Gandhi was declared interim president of the Congress party. You are yet to resolve the leadership crisis in the Congress. What will be the way forward?
Discussions have been going on. There is an internal problem in the party. The way we plan to move forward, we have not been able to do it because we are engaged in asymmetrical political warfare. There is a Modi juggernaut, there is a Modi spell… We don’t have the same resources. After losing two consecutive Lok Sabha elections, our party has been weakened. To move forward from here is a big challenge for us. They have the resources, a well-oiled machinery along with the Modi juggernaut. We will have to wait a little, but that does not mean that we will sit quietly. Today, there is no party as vocal in its criticism of the BJP like the Congress is. There is a need for all opposition parties to come together and for that our interim president is enough. All opposition leaders respect Sonia Gandhi. With her as the interim president, we have never felt that we can’t fight. Rahul Gandhi is there, he does all the work… We see him taking on Modiji every day. But Sonia Gandhi’s personality works as a centrifugal force to bring the Opposition together. She is the best bet for us in the current situation.
SWEETY KUMARI: What are your views on factionalism in your party?
It is an ominous trend, switching of loyalties. The BJP may rejoice at the situation. In Bengal, Mamata Banerjee may do so too. A number of our MLAs moved to the Trinamool. Through fear parties get people to switch sides. Here (in Delhi) the CBI is used for everything, in Bengal the CID or police. It is the same syndrome. This is very dangerous for democracy. We go to people asking for votes based on our party. Then, right after winning, we sell ourselves. We have to introspect… These MLAs should have banners on their chest declaring ‘For Sale’ or ‘Not for sale’. This is what it has come down to.
Mamata Banerjee did this in Bengal to weaken our party. Now, people are leaving her party to join the BJP. That is why it is said that snake bite kills the snake charmer… This is political burglary, luring MLAs from other parties and then ensuring they don’t fight polls. It’s dangerous.
ATRI MITRA: Following the demise of Somen Mitra, who will become the president of the Congress in Bengal?
The BJP has gained some momentum in West Bengal. Till a few years ago, the BJP’s name was alien for the people of West Bengal. Bengal was never about communal or caste politics, but now, there has been a shift in the political discourse. People are discussing who will rule West Bengal — Mamata Banerjee-led TMC or the BJP? It’s a tragedy for us.
The Congress and the Left parties were talking. But with the demise of Somen Mitra, the talks have been stalled. We are hoping that as soon as the president (of the state unit) is appointed, the talks will begin again. This is a compulsion for the Left parties and the Congress, if we want a favourable result in the polls. I feel both parties will have to work together. The process to appoint a president is underway.
HARIKISHAN SHARMA: Following the outbreak of Covid-19, first the government suspended the MPLADS fund and now it plans to convene Parliament without Question Hour. As an MP, do you feel less empowered?
I would say (we have been) disentitled. For us (MPs), MPLADS (Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme) is a big weapon. The fund is not for a small area. My constituency has seven Assembly segments and over 14 lakh voters. We use the funds to donate computers to schools, build classrooms, construct roads etc… As soon as Parliament convenes, the Congress will oppose this move (to suspend MPLADS). If you ask BJP MPs in private, they will also express their anger towards the move.
The most important thing in Parliament is Question Hour, where you can get answers to 20 questions from 20 different topics. If you get to know about 20 issues every day, you will be well aware. Question Hour, Zero Hour and Private Member’s Bill are the rights and assets of individual MPs. Suspending Question Hour is not right. We will raise this issue in Parliament. I have already conveyed my concerns to the Speaker.
AAKASH JOSHI: In its second term, with the Ram Temple in Ayodhya and the abrogation of Article 370, it seems the BJP has set the agenda for the larger political discourse, because of which real politics is not happening outside Parliament. How can you counter it?
We counter the BJP every day. Today, the Chinese have entered Indian territory and captured land. The Chinese government is unilaterally deciding boundaries. But are we discussing it? No. They (the BJP) have diverted our attention with Article 370 and Ram Mandir. They are asking people to boycott Chinese goods. It is a reactive measure. The common people of the country are being misled.
Article 370 has been abrogated but has there been any respite from terrorism?… One year has passed. Has the situation changed? Has even one Kashmiri Pandit returned? Nothing has happened.
KRISHN KAUSHIK: But despite these issues, the popularity of the Prime Minister remains high. Isn’t that a failure of the Congress party?
Modiji is a good communicator and knows how to win the hearts and faith of people. He doesn’t do any work but he knows how to win… If Modi gives a (report card) of his work, then his image will break. He has been PM for over six years now, but has he ever appeared before the Indian media? No, because the media will burst his balloon. So he knows the art of gaining people’s trust and till the time he continues to do so, he will win. But, at the same time, we will also continue to work to displace him from his position. Of course, we (the Congress) have some shortcomings. The day we can overcome those we will achieve our old status again.
KRISHN KAUSHIK: But again, the situation will remain the same. What will the Congress do differently now?
The situation now is not permanent, it’s transitory. Slowly, questions are being raised. Earlier, everyone thought Modi is Tarzan, now they have realised Xi Jinping is a bigger Tarzan. Our Prime Minister goes to Ladakh and makes a point, and there is only a spokesperson’s response from the Chinese side. Sitting in Delhi, the Chinese ambassador says that India should not make such a mistake again, and, in Beijing, our ambassador requests China to begin talks. So now the common people are asking questions. As these questions increase, Modiji’s position will also weaken.
Yes, he (PM Modi) is popular. We (the Congress) do everything, but the message doesn’t reach the grassroots. There are faults in our organisational structure. That is the difference (between the BJP and Congress). And, as this difference reduces we will begin to taste success.
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