In this Idea Exchange moderated by Abantika Ghosh of The Indian Express, Trinamool MP Derek O’Brien talks about the ‘vendetta’ behind the Saradha scam investigation, PM Modi’s attendance and Opposition unity in Parliament, and why he is still in the business of quizzing
Abantika Ghosh: Throughout the Winter Session, the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha did not allow business to be transacted. The government, and the finance minister, said that a certain party’s MPs caused this impasse. What do you have to say about that?
It’s not just the Opposition, the government too didn’t allow Parliament to function. When the Prime Minister entered the House today (the last day of the session), I said it’s wonderful that he is expressing himself on Facebook and Twitter, but we wish he could also come to the historic round building (Parliament) and express himself. After BJP MP Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti made those (Ramzadon-Haramzadon) comments, we, the Opposition of eight or nine parties, thought we should ask for her resignation. Obviously that wasn’t coming. Then we listened to the Prime Minister respectfully, without disturbing him or getting into the well. We toned down our demand and said we only want a censure. But that too didn’t happen. We had come further down because we wanted the House to move a general resolution. So, the chairman read it and we moved on. Unfortunately, after that, other kinds of canons have been shot, such as conversions. The Prime Minister needed to comment and make his stance clear. It was pretty obvious that the government and the Opposition dug their heels in, there was no-go. So that’s the real story.
I will give you a cricket analogy. When we went into the Winter Session of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha, the BJP-NDA government was in the home team dressing room. The AIDMK and BJD were there too, though they weren’t padded up to bat. It was a pretty upbeat dressing room because of their big win. In the visitors’ dressing room were a group of parties which had lost a series of league matches—the Congress, Samajwadi Party, BSP, CPI CPM, DMK, NCP, JD(U)—along with an upbeat Trinamool Congress which had just had a big win. So, the winners had to lift the morale of others in the room before they went on to bat. This is what happened in this Winter Session of Parliament.
Vandita Mishra: The BJP has come to power in Jharkhand, and has made a significant entry in Jammu and Kashmir politics. How do you think that’s going to change equations in your dressing room?
Well, the BJP must be disappointed. They had launched ‘Mission 44’ in Jammu and Kashmir, but they didn’t achieve that mission even in the other state, Jharkhand. We are ready for the next match in January. Without sounding cocky or arrogant, I think the scenario in 2015 would be like this: parties which seemingly have differences like the SP and the BSP, like the Trinamool and the Left, will come together on certain broad issues, so long as there is no oneupmanship.
When we came here one month ago, before Parliament started, it pretty much seemed like a big mountain to climb. But now, when these things have been worked out—whether it is the Janata Parivar and the Trinamool’s show of solidarity with them—the opposition parties are a lot more gung-ho, unlike what they were feeling one month ago.
Amitabh Sinha: You spoke of opposition parties coming together on broad issues. Will you take on the BJP on communal or secular issues, or on unfulfilled promises of Modi’s development agenda?
The two are linked. If the BJP was delivering its promised so-called economic reforms and writing such a narrative, it wouldn’t need to switch to another narrative—that of forced conversions or conversions, and Christmas day. I think this is all part of a plan. When we wished a senior BJP MP Merry Christmas, he looked back and said, ‘Happy New Year’.
The conversion debate was first allowed in the Lok Sabha. The Speaker of the Lok Sabha does not allow something until it wants it on the table. So the conversion issue has to be handled carefully. If you read the Acts in Gujarat and in Chhattisgarh, the bottomline is that to change your religion you have to seek the DM’s permission. There can be no coercion in conversion. That’s is a no-brainer.
Dilip Bobb: Their counter bouncer is the anti-conversion Bill. What’s your
view on that?
If you bowl a bouncer, it can also become a lollipop and be hit for a six. This is a subject which is quite close to my heart. I am from a Christian family in Calcutta, who grew up in a Hindu neighbourhood, in a street named after a Muslim. The debate on conversion will continue, I don’t think there should be a problem with that. But I said this once and I will say it again. On one side, the BJP are showing us this digital India and on the other side, there is this destructive India where you deliberately pull microphones, wires, where you use loudspeakers to instigate a communal riot. You (The Indian Express) have done interesting reports based on Uttar Pradesh police records. I would like to do a similar study in Bengal or another state to see how first the loudspeakers are used, then the way the small incidents are played up, and third, how technology such as WhatsApp is used. The BJP’s mobile membership drive is the sham of the decade. It’s very simple. You give a missed call, they collect the data and they give you an SMS. You unknowingly become part of their WhatsApp database, so that they can send you WhatsApp of anything, including doctored photos of my honourable colleague, an MP and a former actress.
P Vaidyanathan Iyer: There have been heated debates, etc. But in the last six months, do you see the government reaching out to the Opposition in the House?
It was not the issue of conversion that was discussed in the Rajya Sabha, but the issue of ‘you can’t be an RPM, a Roster Prime Minister’. You will decide that you will come to the House, be there from noon to 1 pm on Thursday to do the roster duty and take part in the Question Hour. The issue is not conversion, but what is your view, Mr Prime Minister, on subject X or subject Y? There are issues where he has to speak his mind. You talked of the extended family. I don’t know what is the extended family. Is this the extended family and that the mother family, or is it the other way round? I am also not a great fan of the word ‘fringe’. By ‘fringe’, you mean this is on the edge, but this may be the mainstream of that group.
Ruhi Tewari: Do you see the BJP making inroads in West Bengal, and does that worry you?
One, most of the BJP thing in West Bengal is media hype. A section of the media has come into an informal alliance with the BJP. Two, there is an opposition space available in Bengal as the CPM has collapsed. Should we be worried or not? We should not be cocky. It’s eventually a political fight with numbers.
After the May Lok Sabha elections, there was a bypoll in September in two Assembly segments. One of the segments was Chowringhee, a cosmopolitan, urban constituency. In the May elections, the Congress had been ahead there by 2,000 votes, the Trinamool was second, but 3,000 votes ahead of the BJP. Then you come to September, after Amit Shah is done with campaigning in that constituency. One day later, our young MP Abhishek Banerjee from Diamond Harbour was sent to campaign there, and the BJP called him an MP in diapers. He did pretty well with his diapers, I say, because we won by 15,000 votes. This is post-Amit Shah. A similar result played out in the other bypoll. Now, a serious plan has been put in place to communalise, polarise. In March or April, there will be another test—the municipal elections in Kolkata —to see if this is hype. But yes, there is an Opposition space and I think the rest are working very hard to keep themselves relevant in that space.
Pranav Kulkarni: How do you justify a chief minister taking to streets
and protesting against a
I don’t need to justify. Mamatadi (Banerjee) is a woman who’s struggled and led a whole movement of struggles like Nandigram, Singur, etc. This is her style. How do you judge a lady who in 2006 was told by every media house, every corporate, every party: ‘Please, for God’s sake, stop this Singur. What are you sleeping on the national highway for? No one will bother about you.’ But she hung in there.
She addressed a party meeting with some 15,000 people in Netaji Indoor Stadium after the Srinjoy Bose arrest. The good thing about Mamatadi is what you see is what you get. That’s why the Trinamool Congress and no other party stands there with black umbrellas.
Utkarsh Anand: Is your party uncomfortable with the investigation in the Saradha scam?
We feel a lot of it is political vendetta. Amit Shah is making announcements in Chowrin-ghee and has a script—yeh hoga, woh hoga—but who is Amit Shah? The same guy who spent 68 days in jail, the same guy who in 2010 was arrested by the CBI. It’s political vendetta. We feel there is no deal to be made, no match-fixing with the Trinamool, you come at us, we will come at you. We are only asking you to fight us politically.
Sagnik ChowdhUry: How do you view the Burdwan blasts and the subsequent arrests?
I have to relate this back to Amit Shah’s rally in Kolkata where he said the chit fund money was used for the blast and was siphoned off to Bangladesh through a TMC MLA he named. I will give you two counters: First, the MoS in the PMO, Jitendra Singh, in a written reply in the Lok Sabha, stated that there was no connection between the chit fund money, Trinamool and Bangladesh. If you don’t believe the PMO, there is another answer by Jayant Sinha in the Lok Sabha saying the same thing. Secondly, there are two sides of the story. How independently did the National Investigation Agency (NIA) act? Was the body identified by the family members of the victim?
Sagnik Chowduhry: Do you see the entire terror controversy being largely cooked up?
Who made the arrest? The West Bengal Police. Reportedly, the police demanded reward too for the arrest. In any case, the NIA didn’t (make the arrest). To be fair, a lot of people have gone on record saying all this is happening because the West Bengal Police and NIA are working together. This is part of a script, that you have to polarise, you make Mamatadi a great symbol of Islam because she goes to an iftar party, and then we will do our stuff. During the PM’s election campaign, he was giving all these speeches on jihadis and hashtagging it on Twitter. It all adds up, it’s part of a master plan.
Vandita Mishra: There is a gap in the Rajya Sabha between the government and the Opposition. Do you see it closing considering the rate at which the BJP is going—winning in Haryana, Maharashtra, and now Jharkhand?
According to my calculation, till the 2016 Budget, minimum April, forget about being in the majority, they are in a hopeless minority. Hopeless means, if these so-called parties are in conflict, even if one of them is here to flip and one of them is there to flop, they are still in a minority. And the (insurance) FDI ordinance. It’s all big talk. I dare them to bring it (in the House), because if they do, we will defeat it in the next session.
Vandita Mishra: From today till 2016 Budget, there will be many Parliament sessions. How do you see this impasse play out in terms of moving of ordinances and joint sessions?
Three questions: Ordinance, that’s their prerogative. Joint session, that’s their prerogative too. You can’t do a joint session now for the insurance Bill. To bring a joint session means the Bill has to be defeated, and for that to happen, you have to table a Bill. You can’t table the insurance Bill, then how can it be defeated?
Because I have got amendments on that Bill. Now, you may want to pass that Bill, but when you come to me, I am going to move my amendment and I am going to ask for revision and at that time you have to have the House in order. They have to fight their way out.
My party has not done a flip-flop. Consider this my two-line advertisement break—I want to point out that penetration in insurance has gone down by 1 per cent since FDI came to India. I have got the documents and real numbers. In the last 10 years, the contribution from FDI has been R7,300 crore including from all companies. And the contribution from LIC in the last 10 years to the government has been R14,000 crore.
Raj Kamal Jha: How have Wikipedia and
Google changed your job as a quizmaster?
After leaving Ogilvy, we started a company called Derek O’Brien and Associates in 1992. And by 2000, we were doing 128 quizzes every year. There was one quiz master and that was me. And we got into the Limca Book of Records. I could go beyond 128 and make 135, but one would lose girlfriends and wives if one kept going like that. So, we needed others within the firm. Now there is a full research team, production team and presenters. Now we do 2,400 shows every year. It’s become a knowledge show. I record two days, when I shoot the Bournvita quiz—Saturdays and Sundays.
We also have to engage in more interesting ways. When we go to schools, we do it in more exciting ways than Google and Wikipedia. With Wikipedia, 70% is right and 30% wrong. So we are very much in business.
The grandiose mission statement of our company is—making knowledge interesting to help people and brands grow. We wrote that 10 years after the start of the company.
I tried to do the same thing in Parliament. I had to find a way to communicate that the PM was not coming to Parliament often. So I just said this one thing: ‘Can you please grant him visa to come?’. They all got offended.
I also used his speech, ‘56 inch ki chaati’, and turned it around to ‘4 inch ka dil’. So we need to make those moments memorable, and some people take it sportingly. Mr Arun Jaitley said, ‘The problem with Derek O’Brien is that because he is a quiz master, when he asks or says something, he makes it sound like a puzzle’.
Transcribed by Koel Banerjee & Kangkan Das