Two-time Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien loves to call himself a student of politics — a chapter in his just-released book Inside Parliament: Views From the Front Row in fact, is called, “A Student in the University that is Parliament”. He is, one may add, a keen student. However, that keen eye, his ability to get to the crux of the matter, is missing in the book. It is very readable, replete with O’Brienisms: Digital India = Divisive India, jersey number 110 for Arun Jaitley (after Article 110, under which a bill can be declared a money bill) and ubiquitous cricketing references, perhaps a throwback to the author’s past as a sports journalist. The wit is both refreshing and scathing. Sample this: “I was also thinking of compiling a list of the most boring Twitter handles. But then a whole lot of Union Cabinet ministers would get very upset.”
But, the insight into the workings of the imposing white building that one had hoped for, from a man who has been at the forefront of opposition coordination for the last few years — when Indian politics is swiftly becoming a game of BJP vs the rest — is conspicuous by its absence. Instead, there are some essays such as ‘The Left’s Desperation is Ugly’ and ‘Why Bengal will Choose Mamata Again’ that really are an extension of his persona as the chief national spokesperson of Trinamool Congress.
There are three essential features of the book. Slamming ministers and the prime minister — two very well-researched chapters have been devoted to ‘What Modi’s Speeches Won’t Tell You’, criticising the media for being partisan or plain ignorant about Bharat, and praising the Trinamool Congress and its supremo Mamata Banerjee. This is interspersed with light-hearted essays such as those on interesting Twitter handles, on MPs to watch out for — which includes Laloo Prasad Yadav’s daughter and O’Brien’s colleague in the Rajya Sabha, Misa Bharti — and one on the Central Hall of Parliament, titled after the famous Jayalalithaa photo in the translucent breast pockets of AIADMK MPs. Many essays, therefore, are essentially longer versions of his characteristically pithy and crisp speeches in Parliament. The anecdotes that are his forte as a conversationalist, could have added so much more to that narrative.
Interestingly, apart from Mamata Banerjee, the only other Trinamool member who features prominently in the book is her nephew Abhishek Banerjee, the party MP from Diamond Harbour and, apparently, one of the reasons for the exit of former number two Mukul Roy. Talking about the 2016 Assembly election victory of Trinamool Congress, he says: “This was her victory. She had campaigned across the state tirelessly. The only other person who had travelled even a fraction as much as her was Abhishek Banerjee, Diamond Harbour MP and president of the party’s youth wing.”
In his criticism of the NDA government, he is most caustic while talking about demonetisation and GST, recounting in great detail the post-November 8 public developments that led to the coming together of the Opposition. But one misses the details of an insider’s account. He tells the demonetisation story, in particular, very effectively, tracing the flip-flopping comments of the prime minister and his ministers in its wake and the comments of economists such as Raghuram Rajan and Kaushik Basu. He bashes with class, quoting Leon Trotsky to call the CPM ‘isolated’ and ‘bankrupt’, and quotes from the Gita to accuse the BJP of not fulfilling its dharma in implementing GST.
He ends, fittingly, with what is perhaps his best line in Parliament: “I was born and grew up in Calcutta, in a Hindu neighbourhood. We are a Christian family. We lived on a street named after a Muslim (Jamir Lane). We are a Christian family. That is the India I know.” It is a solid first draft of interesting political times. But, a first draft.