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Sunday, May 16, 2021

Derek O’Brien: ‘All parties make mistakes… We are quietly confident. Didi’s credibility will see us through’

As the high stakes, two-month-long election in Bengal enters its last leg, the Trinamool Congress has been raising the pitch against the EC and BJP. O’Brien is the party’s most prominent face in Delhi and among its chief spokespersons.

By: Express News Service | New Delhi |
Updated: April 26, 2021 1:16:21 pm
Derek O'Brien, Trinamool Congress parliamentary party leader in Rajya Sabha. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

O’Brien says EC must answer for firing that killed four, clarifies party’s position on the insider-outsider debate, asks why Abhishek Banerjee has not been arrested if charges against him true, and says parties now need men like Prashant Kishor. The session was moderated by Special Correspondent Dipankar Ghose.

DIPANKAR GHOSE: Six of eight phases of polling are done in West Bengal. Where do you think this election stands right now?

We have been focused on our campaign. We are saying that in the last 10 years, the Mamata Banerjee government has delivered on many parameters — health, education, road, infrastructure, electricity, employment, IT, women’s safety. We are also saying that in the last 10 years, we haven’t done it all. On the other side, you have the BJP. You judge them on the promises made and the promises they have kept. This is the basic proposition. The BJP wants to make comments, indulge in bluster and big talk and play mind games. We haven’t been into that. The bottom line is if you are fighting the world’s most destructive political force…you have to acknowledge that they have the money. And I dare say that they found a new ally. We always knew it was a hidden ally, but in the last two weeks the extremely compromised Election Commission (EC) has come out openly as their ally.

DIPANKAR GHOSE: While you attacked the Prime Minister for holding rallies even as the Covid-19 caseload was rising, the Trinamool also wasn’t very prompt in shutting down its rallies and campaigns.

We have been appealing to the umpire, the Election Commission, for a long time. Please look at the press conference by Mamata Banerjee after the election schedule was announced. We said that you are comparing the situation now to 2016 (for holding polling in eight phases). In 2016, there were hundreds of deaths due to insurgents, now that number is zero. And the second reason we gave for (not holding the polls over eight phases) was the situation of the pandemic. So we have been very, very consistent.

Going back to the Election Commission, by the way, we have written thousands of letters to them and physically delivered 108 letters. What have we been saying? Change the rules, change the rules, change the rules! But the Election Commission did not act. The only time they acted was two hours after Mr Modi’s announcement… There’s no fig leaf of pretence anymore. I have a lot of things to say about the EC which I will say after May 2… What they say within those closed-door meetings, it is pathetic. And by the way, how come this election is being conducted with two of the three ECs. Everybody knew the third person was going to retire? Maybe Amit Shah is the third EC. He might as well come out and do it openly… It’s a very bad situation. As far as the BJP goes, it is their umpire, their bat, their ball, their pitch… But we still have to play the match, that is why we say ‘match on (Khela Hobe)’, what can we do?

SANTANU CHOWDHURY: The Trinamool always refers to the BJP as the tourist gang and outsiders in Bengal. Can you elaborate? Also, why is caste playing such a big role in the polls this time?

Let me answer your second question (on caste) first. Politics in Bengal has never seen the kind of divide that the BJP is trying to play up desperately in typical Modi-Shah mode. They can keep playing it up but we still believe that people will not buy it.

Now on to the first part, what do we mean by outsider? Because otherwise this entire debate can be misconstrued. What do we mean by outsider, insider? Whether your name is Agarwal, Gupta, D’Souza, Sharma, Roy Choudhry, Jha, you are not an outsider. People who come here, live here, work here, have a ration card here… Outsiders are those who like the BJP have come into Bengal two months ago to suck the state for votes. There is a clear distinction between outsider-insider in Bengal. Shouldn’t I call Amit Shah an outsider when he says Rabindranath Tagore was born in Shantiniketan? Shouldn’t I call the BJP an outsider when they go and garland the wrong statue of Birsa Munda? It doesn’t work… That is the distinction between outsiders and people from Bengal. So they (the BJP) will try and confuse the argument, but we are very clear.

We are in a very positive campaign… We are saying talk to us about farmers. You promised Mr Prime Minister that you will double farmers’ income by 2022. At the current rate, that’s not going to happen before 2028. In 2011, Mamata Banerjee said she will double farmers’ income. She didn’t double farmers’ income in 10 years, it has actually tripled… Talk to us about Kanyashree (an initiative of the state government to improve life and status of girls), which has won the United Nations award… Our budget for the scheme is Rs 9,400 crore. What is the benefit of that? It has brought down early marriage figures, improved infant mortality rate… Talk to us about road construction, MSMEs… That is Bengal. Talk to us about the 95 lakh new households electrified since 2011… Talk to us about these, instead of digressing and bringing Pakistan into the narrative or starting some other divisive narrative. That’s not going to work… They can’t send any of their MPs to debate us because five of their MPs have been demoted to fight MLA elections in West Bengal…

MANOJ C G: Can the BJP’s rise in the state only be attributed to the fact that they have more funds? The BJP had around 10% of the votes and three seats in the last Assembly elections, and in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls they went on to win 18 seats, accounting for nearly 40% vote share.

Let me give you some facts. The CPM vote share dropped from 30% to 7% in the last election, and the Congress’s vote share dropped from 10% to 5%. So there is an opposition space there. The Trinamool Congress didn’t drop its vote share. The Trinamool’s vote share went up by 2%… Today, there is enough evidence on the ground that the Left front, the CPI(M) is telling people to vote for the BJP. The Opposition space has gone to the BJP.

MANOJ C G: But there are other issues as well, including anti-incumbency against your government and your MLAs at the local level, corruption, cut money, and perceived resentment against appeasement policies. These have also played a role in the rise of the BJP in the state.

There has to be anti-incumbency. There is Covid, we also had Cyclone Amphan last year, which was the number one setback in Bengal. We have to acknowledge that. Of course there will be anti-incumbency; after 10 years in government you will have to change your MLAs.

I always say who is talking about corruption. If the Trinamool has small-time retail corruption down the line, the BJP has corporate, wholesale corruption. They are the most corrupt political party in the world. And this is not rhetorical. Look at the CAG reports from the last one-two years. Look at electoral bonds… For every Rs 100 given on electoral bonds, the BJP gets Rs 60. Look at PM-CARES. They do it in a wholesale way. They are very stylish about it. Look at the way they control surrogate media and digital platforms. Look at the way it is controlled, and you are talking of corruption.

DIPANKAR GHOSE: The alleged violence by Trinamool workers has also added to the anti-incumbency…

If everything was so wrong about the Trinamool Congress, then how come our party’s ministers were being used in the BJP in the washing machine format?… Suvendu Adhikari, Mukul Roy have suddenly all become angels… You have run them through the washing machine… You take all of them, you shut the cases down and you throw corruption charges at us… You are making all these accusations against Abhishek Banerjee… All agencies are yours — the CBI, ED. Put forth the evidence and arrest him… But you can’t do that. You are only doing this for your 9 pm television channel shows… After four days, it will all go away.

You talk about dynasty. What is dynasty? Who is your Nandigram candidate? His father is an MP, his brother is an MP, his elder brother is a councillor and his sister-in-law is also a councillor. All these guys are dynasts. Piyush Goyal is not a dynast? Anurag Thakur is not a dynast? I have made a list of 37, they are all dynasts… What is Jay Shah’s contribution to cricket? Nobody talks about it…

ATRI MITRA: In villages affected by Cyclone Amphan, there have been accusations of corruption against many panchayat leaders. How are you assuring these sections?

That is where we needed to do some self-assessment. We did it and got some feedback. That is why six-eight months before the polls we started the door-to-door ‘Duare Sarkar’ outreach programme, saying that we are not perfect. That is the course correction. You have to have the humility to course correct. You can’t have the hubris of a Modi who announced demonetisation and didn’t have the humility to course correct… But that does not mean that every single person down the line is corrupt.

RITIKA CHOPRA: Poll strategist Prashant Kishor has said that he doesn’t agree with the attack on EVMs. What is your response to that? He also said that Narendra Modi is a popular leader on the ground. Do you agree with his assessment?

I am a believer of the fact that to fight elections today, political parties need Pashant Kishor and Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC). The MPs and political leaders who think I-PAC is the competitor, they are old school, they are blind. They don’t know how elections work. I-PAC is an important resource and Prashant is a great mind to have in a team. Number two, Modi is a popular leader. Do you think Hitler was not a popular leader? He (Kishor) said nothing controversial. His view on EVMs is his view, my party’s view is a different view. That’s perfectly fine.

We don’t have to agree on everything… We are very suspicious that the Election Commission is sold out. I made a mistake by calling the EC ‘extremely compromised’. They are a completely sold-out body. It is very, very sad.

SHUBHAJIT ROY: Essentially there is a sense that the Trinamool has gone all out on minority appeasement. There seems to be some latent anger among Bengali Hindus in West Bengal regarding the matter…

Bengali Hindus are angry with the Trinamool you say. Minorities account for 27% of the votes in Bengal. How come we got 45% of the votes in the Lok Sabha elections? This is all a cock-and-bull mindset that Bengali Hindus vote for the BJP and somebody else votes for the Trinamool… Mamata Banerjee recites the Chandi Path in the privacy of a room, but when she recites it publicly you say she is trying to appease… Religion is private, festivals are for everyone. It is not my quote but it is very Calcutta. It’s very Bengal. There is a Jewish Bakery called Nahoum in Kolkata. The Christmas cakes at the shop are baked by Muslim bakers, and you can see Bengali Hindus queuing up to buy the cake. That’s the Bengal we know. This is not Amit Shah’s Bengal, this is not Modi’s Bengal. Derek O’Brien is a minuscule minority of a minority. I don’t represent an Anglo-Indian nominated seat. I am an elected member of the Rajya Sabha. It can only happen in Bengal with Mamata Banerjee.

SANTANU CHOWDHURY: Does the Trinamool have a plan in place to manage the Covid-19 crisis if it returns to power?

The first thing we will do is implement free vaccination from May 2. When the March 2020 lockdown announcement happened, nobody was taken into confidence — neither Parliament nor the state. It’s only later that Modi and Shah realised that the states did all the dirty work when it came to implementation. Earlier, they were quick to take the credit… Overconfidence, arrogance, hubris… Now it is back to what the states can do. (In case of the TMC) at least you know who will implement the policies. Who will implement it for the BJP? Who is their CM candidate?… The question of the BJP winning Bengal doesn’t arise. They have hyped up this election by an enormous proportion.

SWEETY MISHRA: Youngsters in Bengal feel that the state hasn’t offered them much.

Perception building is an area where we can do better. For example, IT exports in Bengal went up by 175 per cent in the last 10 years. We must get this across. There are 1,500 companies now in Bengal. In 2011, there were 490 companies. There were 90,000 IT professionals in 2011. Now, there are almost 2,20,000 IT professionals…

DIPANKAR GHOSE: Has religious polarisation increased on the ground in Bengal?

There may be three reasons for that. The first reason is that there is an Opposition vacuum created after the collapse of the Left and the non-existence of the Congress. That has to be occupied.

Number two, the BJP cannot compete on governance and development, so they want to write a new story for Bengal, which is a divisive, polarised one. There is no doubt about it. And the third reason is that they run a completely negative campaign. You want to recruit, you will recruit anybody, there is no organic growth there…

There are three BJPs in Bengal. One is the ‘BJP Original’, which is Dilip Ghosh’s BJP… Then there is a ‘BJP B’, which has those who left the Trinamool Congress five years ago. And the third one is ‘BJP Tatkal’, made of those who joined the party in the last three-four months for various reasons… After the results on May 2, when the Trinamool wins, these three BJPs cannot function together… I am saying this as a student of politics.

MANOJ CG: During the 2018 panchayat elections, when the Trinamool candidates were uncontested in 30% of the seats, it was the Opposition that had attacked the State Election Commission for their candidates not being able to file nominations…

We have been a political party since 1998… You can’t point out a single political party which hasn’t made mistakes. When you introspect… of course, the 2018 (panchayat polls) didn’t go well for us. We could have done that differently….

All parties make mistakes, even bigger mistakes. But trust Didi, she is the captain of the ship. That is why we are quietly confident. When there are professional surveys (conducted) by the TMC, the Chief Minister’s ratings are right up there. With the Chief Minister’s rating hovering around 50 per cent, you can certainly look at those numbers and say the CM’s own credibility is good. And that is what will see us through eventually.

SHUBHAJIT ROY: If the Trinamool loses the election on May 2, will you accept the verdict or blame EVMs and the EC for the results?

Why should I allow a negative thought to come to my mind? Why should I allow a hypothetical question? Why should I allow a question when my data and feedback from the ground says we are comfortably ahead of the BJP compared to 2019. We are winning this election, Mamata Banerjee will be the chief minister for the third time in a row. The two turncoat ministers from the TMC will be defeated. And the Union Minister will also lose in the polls.

…During the firing in Sitalkuchi in Cooch Behar, four people died. No matter what the result is on May 2, the EC, Amit Shah or whoever it is, has to be held accountable. Where is the video footage? Where are the 2,000 people who came around and did all those barbaric acts (attacked the security forces)? Where is the video footage of snatching of guns? No matter what happens on May 2, why did you shoot to kill? Why didn’t you shoot waist downwards? These are the big questions which the EC has to answer. One of the human tragedies of this election is that the EC was shooting to kill. We will take this up from the afternoon of May 2.

The EC issue will not stop because it is not about the EC. It is about an institution… Irrespective of the result, I will actually disclose official conversations between the EC and the Trinamool. I am told that those conversations were recorded. If I can access those conversations, I must expose it.

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