‘You don’t choose a captain and then choose a team’

From campaigning against demonetisation to voicing its criticism of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, the Trinamool Congress has taken the lead in rallying against the Narendra Modi government. In this interview, TMC leader Derek O’Brien, who is a member of the Rajya Sabha, says the NRC is a national issue, calls the BJP a “non-starter” in West Bengal, and explains why he thinks the BJP will lose in 2019. Excerpts:

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has been criticised for saying that the NRC exercise could lead to a “bloodbath and civil war”.

She didn’t say there is a civil war. She said that if a situation like this continues, it could lead to a civil war. People are twisting her words. The entire issue is a dirty, devious political plan of the BJP. It is not about Assam alone. It is about Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bengal, Bihar and many other States. It is a national issue. The BJP wants to polarise India. Indian citizens cannot be refugees in their own country. Unfortunately, the BJP is [indulging] in doublespeak. At one end, you have the Home Minister telling Parliament that it is only a draft list and that it will be revisited. And then you have senior BJP leaders, including the party president, thumping their chests and calling the ones excluded in the NRC list as “
” or illegal. The reason all this happening is because the BJP knows that its time is up. It’s looking at using all these issues for its own devious political gains.

If it is a question of humanity, why did the West Bengal government not provide legacy data for the NRC exercise, which could have saved many from exclusion?

This is not about legacy data. No State government was consulted. How do they explain leaving out Army personnel, educationists, bureaucrats? It is an issue that needs to be dealt with very tactfully. Home Minister Rajnath Singh said in Parliament that some on social media are trying to stoke communal passion. He is right. Who is stoking communal passion? It is the BJP and the RSS.

During her recent visit to Delhi, Ms. Banerjee said that the BJP will be “finished” in 2019. What is your party’s confidence based on?

Our confidence is based on only one thing: the people of India. I am absolutely certain that the people of India will know that they gave this Prime Minister a great chance in 2014. The BJP was brilliant — and still is — when it comes to advertising, marketing and propagating fake news. But it has failed on delivery. There is a great advertising guru, David Ogilvy, who said that the easiest thing to do is to sell somebody a product. So the BJP sold this
achhe din
concept in 2014. Ogilvy also said that what is more difficult is to make a person purchase the same product a second time. It is the same issue with the BJP. They sold
achhe din
in 2014 and everyone believed them. We don’t have to wait till 2019; the people of India have already made up their minds. In Bengal, the Trinamool Congress will demolish them; they will lose in Odisha; M.K. Stalin and the DMK will defeat them in Tamil Nadu; they will meet the same fate in Andhra Pradesh; in Bihar, Lalu Prasadji will do the job; in Karnataka, the combination of Kumaraswamyji and the Congress will finish them. As a student of politics, I think the BJP will only manage 150 [seats].

The BJP has been asking ‘Modi versus who’ in 2019. Will a collective Opposition leadership be the answer to the party’s presidential-style campaign?

The last time I checked the Constitution, it was a parliamentary democracy, so where is this presidential form coming from? For their own convenience, they [the BJP] may want to pitch it as any form of government, from dictatorship to presidential. I think leaders of my party and many other parties have made it clear that the Prime Minister will be decided after the elections end. All these like-minded parties will do very well and we can decide once the BJP and Mr. Modi are removed. For us, the common agenda is to take up people’s issues. We want to bring back the India we love. Not a divisive India, not an India where promises are not delivered. It is not about who will win the election. India must win in 2019.

Ms. Banerjee has taken the lead in the campaign against the Modi government on various issues and has made frequent trips to the capital. Is she positioning herself as a prime ministerial candidate?

With her 25 years of experience as an MP, twice as Chief Minister, with her experience as a Cabinet Minister, and 40 years of struggle, Mamata-di doesn’t need to roam around in Delhi with her CV. Her track record, experience, acceptability with everybody, and ability to manage relationships will play an important role. We are like the squirrel in the garden. The squirrel does a lot of work and is indispensable for the garden. We are not chair-hunting.

Do you see Congress president Rahul Gandhi in the driver’s seat in an Opposition alliance? What will be the Congress’s role in 2019?

It is not about individuals. India needs the BJP-RSS government out. That is the focus now. By propping names you only divide the Opposition. None of the biggest leaders in this wonderful collection of federal parties is putting up their hands to be Prime Minister. Think about it, we are talking about this in August 2018. Could you have imagined such a conversation after the U.P. elections, where despite the demonetisationjumla, the BJP did so well? The momentum is not with the Opposition parties, it is with like-minded parties. In 2014, the biggest ally of this government was the Shiv Sena. In 2018, in the no-confidence motion, did they vote for the government? No, they did not. The second largest ally of the BJP, the TDP — who did they vote for? Not only did they not vote for the BJP, they were the ones to move the no-confidence vote against the government! To me these are the two biggest takeaways from the present political situation. Every party will have a role, it is not about one-upmanship. You don’t choose a captain and then choose a team. We are a well-balanced team, where there are all-rounders, opening batsmen and bowlers. I am saying this because Mamata-di also looks at life like this. The Congress too has an important role to play in the States where it is strong — like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Chhattisgarh.

How does the conflict between your party and the Left parties play out in this collective leadership?

We will work just the way we do in Parliament. The same spirit of floor coordination can happen outside Parliament.

There have been complaints that the Opposition space is shrinking within Parliament. How serious is the situation?

Institutions are important. What is India without its institutions? If its institutions are under threat, we are in real danger. Parliament is one of those institutions. We are not here to sit and complain. The TMC will, along with everybody else, protect these institutions. There are certain procedures, rules and conventions which must be strictly adhered to. We will not allow Parliament to turn into a private backyard of the BJP.

From bank frauds to Rafale, the Opposition has made various allegations of corruption against the Modi government. How confident are you that these allegations will stick?

Corruption is an issue, but it is largely an urban issue. There are bigger issues. I call it JUDGE (jobs, underperformance, demonetisation, GST and the economy). Yes, you can add ‘c’ for corruption also. Essentially, the larger issue that people will be looking at is delivery on promises. I can give you 500 examples of how the Modi government has failed on this account, but I will restrict myself to two. One, in 2014, the Modi government promised to double farmers’ incomes. In 2018, they pushed the deadline to 2022. Even for doing that, agriculture has to grow at 12%; at present, we are growing at a rate of 2%.

Second, the ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ programme is one of the big-ticket projects of the Modi government. If you look closely, the total budget since its inception is Rs. 700 crore, it comes to some Rs. 100 crore per year and that comes to Rs. 3 crore per State. How many girls’ lives have they touched? Now come to the Bengal government’s Kanyashree. It has touched the lives of 50 lakh girls and has a budget of Rs. 5,500 crore for a single State. Like-minded parties have to get the message across that the Modi government has failed to deliver on its promises.

With the growing influence of the BJP in West Bengal, it seems that it is dictating the agenda for the Trinamool Congress too. Your party followed the BJP’s example of taking out a Ram Navami procession. Is your party also peddling soft Hindutva?

Our social welfare and development schemes are not for Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains; they are for the 10 crore people of Bengal. That is the reason we did so well in the Assembly polls. We are not following their agenda at all. We have an understanding of Bengal, its culture, its ethos. The BJP is a non-starter in Bengal. I am not going to comment on who comes second or third. Their brand of bilious politics does not represent Bengal. We are not the ones who took out the procession with swords. We can discuss this ad nauseam, but if the BJP was so good, why did they win only three seats in the 2016 Assembly polls? How come in every bypoll in the last two years, their tally has gone down?

Your party has been battling corruption charges from Sarada to Narada. Will it not cast a shadow on the party’s prospects in the 2019 polls?

Sarada and Narada are all over. The cases were a result of political vendetta. These cases were there in the 2016 Assembly elections. What happened then? We came back stronger improving our tally. When you throw mud on Ms. Banerjee’s white saree, it does not stick. People have known her for 40 years.

All the like-minded parties have been mulling over requesting the Election Commission to replace EVMs with ballot papers. Wouldn’t you be driving our democracy in reverse gear with this move?

Technology can’t replace democracy. The technology has to be 100% foolproof. When we get to the situation that is 100% foolproof, then it is fine.

What is India without its institutions? If its institutions are under threat, we are in real danger.

The BJP is [indulging] in doublespeak. At one end, you have the Home Minister telling Parliament that the NRC is only a draft list and will be revisited. And then you have senior BJP leaders calling the ones excluded in the NRC list as “
” or illegal.

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