Election 2019: I have never seen such a united, cohesive, egos in pocket (opposition) moving ahead, says Derek O’Brien

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Updated: Feb 10, 2019 2:44 PM

Last week, WB CM Mamata Banerjee’s dharna to protest against CBI’s raid on Kolkata police commissioner Rajeev Kumar’s residence, turned into a show of Opposition unity. Politicians such as Andhra Pradesh CM N Chandrababu Naidu and RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav joined the Trinamool chief at the dharna site. “This is not the Trinamool’s dharna. This is a political ‘satyagraha’ — it was organised to save our democracy, our Constitution, our federal structure...,” Mamata said. Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien says that after the January 19 rally, the TMC chief’s protest has further strengthened the Opposition’s resolve to take on the BJP

Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien (File)

ABANTIKA GHOSH: What made chief minister Mamata Banerjee sit on a three-day dharna for the Kolkata police commissioner?
To understand that story I will have to take you back to the day when Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawatiji announced their alliance in Uttar Pradesh, and what happened a few hours after that — the CBI landed up. Then you have to go back to Chandrababu Naidu’s TDP, how the CBI was sent to harass and hassle him and his senior MPs, or you have to go to Arvind Kejriwal’s time, and see how he was harassed by the CBI, or you have to go back to the number of times the Congress party has been hassled and harassed.

I don’t think the BJP did it, I don’t think the CBI did it, I think it is Amit Shah and (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi’s BJP that did it. There is a distinction. This duo will do anything… They have seen that in their internal polls they are somewhere between 150-160 (seats in the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections).

In Kolkata, 41 CBI officials landed up… Forget his name, he is the Police Commissioner of Kolkata. Nothing happened between 2014-2019, and few weeks before the elections they do this. The chief minister went and sat on dharna in support of the state administration. She is also the home minister. These are the times we live in and we will take these guys head on. Basically, this is political vendetta against your political opponents. It’s so obvious.

HARISH DAMODARAN: But why were the policemen sitting on dharna?
They were not sitting on dharna. The Kolkata police commissioner (Rajeev Kumar) had 41 CBI officials outside his house. Then, the chief minister, within and hour, decided to sit on dharna to show solidarity with the state administration, not only for those in Bengal, but for every IAS and IPS officer, and to tell Modi and Shah that you cannot run your banana republic like this. So they (the policemen) were there for an hour and then they moved on. Some pictures may have gone out and worked as bad optics… But I think the bigger picture, the bigger message was to save institutions, save the Constitution.

RAVISH TIWARI: While talking about CBI action in your earlier answer, you missed out one party. Was that deliberate or a slip?
It was a slip. I could also mention the DMK and I could also mention Lalu Prasad. I think the message is very clear. In my eight years in the Parliament, I have never seen this kind of engine-powered, united, cohesive, egos-in-their-pockets (Opposition) moving ahead…

I will give you examples. It started on January 19 (at the Opposition’s ‘United India’ rally in Kolkata). The Congress president couldn’t be there, but there were Congress leaders. That is one. Number two: there was a very important meeting on January 19, off camera, where the 22 parties worked out a document to send to the Election Commission. It’s crucial. Some of the parties that signed on the document are rivals in their states. The third thing is what is happening in Parliament, and the fourth thing is what happened at the Kolkata dharna. More things will be unfolding next week.

RAKESH SINHA: How do you respond to the BJP’s charge that choppers flying their leaders to West Bengal are not being allowed to land?
We have done some research. We figured that 72% of the seats where Yogi Adityanath campaigned, they (the BJP) lost. Why on earth would we not want Yogi Adityanath to come to Bengal? We welcome him, Shivraj Singh Chouhan… We have enough data to suggest that when BJP leaders come without translators, from Delhi or wherever else, that actually helps consolidate the Trinamool votes. They don’t understand the culture. It’s like, you know, at one point, actors from Mumbai would come to Bengal to receive awards, and they would say ‘Mishti Doi!’. Same way BJP leaders now come and say ‘Sonar Bangla’. But Bengal is more than mishti doi and Sonar Bangla.

They are trying to create hype where there is none. Now if there is a helicopter problem, it may be once or twice, after that come…

ABANTIKA GHOSH: The PM has called the Opposition ‘mahamilavat’. He also spoke about BC as Before Congress, and AD as After Dynasty.
What mahamilavat? They are a jumla jodi, a party of two, Shah and Modi. As for BC and AD, it can also be ‘Before Chowkidaar’ and ‘After Dhokha’. We can also come up with clever lines if we want.

On a more serious note, they (the BJP) promised to double farmers’ income. What you have promised in 2014, you haven’t done in 2018, and now in 2019 you say give us till 2022. You come to my state, we promised to double farmers’ income in our manifesto in 2011. Now, in 2019, from `90,000 we have taken it to `3,05,000 per year. We have trebled the income.

Another example is the difference between West Bengal’s Kanyashree scheme. and the Centre’s Beti Bachao programme. The budget for Beti Bachao every year is Rs 100 crore — about Rs 3 crore per state. So in the last five years, you have spent `500 crore on the programme. But how many lives have you touched? West Bengal’s Kanyashree, which won the United Nations award, has a budget of Rs 6,500 crore. Lives of 60 lakh girls have been touched. And then Modi and Shah come to Bengal and tell us that Kanyashree is a copy of Beti Bachao. Kanyashree started two years before Beti Bachao. These are the things they can’t debate.

During the recent joint sitting of Parliament, the loudest thumping of desks in Central Hall came from the Treasury Benches when the words ‘surgical strikes’ were mentioned. Did those thumping their desks know that the current defence budget (`3 lakh crore) is merely 2.5% of the GDP — the lowest since the 1962 war? Did those thumping the desks know that the PMO was running parallel negotiations with the French government in the Rafale deal?

I have to give credit to Modi on three things. He is a good one-way orator. He won’t take questions. He makes big promises but he doesn’t keep them, and he is the prince of deception and the grandfather of corruption. There is enough in the public domain, but no one discusses his corruption.

DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: The CBI says that for the past two years they have been sending summons, they have been asking for documents, and seeking cooperation in the Saradha investigation.
There are five letters written by the police commissioner of Kolkata, offering himself for questioning to the CBI. It is in the public domain. Four letters have been written by the CBI asking people to appear as witnesses, but they are all wonky in terms of dates. Someone has been asked to appear before the CBI on August 20, but the letter is dated September 5. It’s blatant political vendetta.

Tomorrow, I may get a CBI notice for saying something against Shah. Our fight is not CBI. It is with the Centre. But the more you provoke people in the Trinamool and Mamata Banerjee… We are not chicken-hearted, we will take you on. But we will not be like you when we are controlling these things in a few months from now. We have to be gracious.

India is a Union of states and, in the coming months, the government at the Centre will be one whose foundations are laid by the different states.
LIZ MATHEW: After Mukul Roy, another Trinamool leader has switched sides to the BJP. The BJP says there are more Trinamool leaders who will join them.
Mukul is a traitor. One or two MPs will go, they have been suspended from the party. I have never fought an election, I am in the Rajya Sabha, but Mukul’s track record is even better. He has fought one election in the Assembly, and lost that by 25,000 votes. So who are we talking about?

LIZ MATHEW: Are there more?
Not that I know of.

LIZ MATHEW: Political observers have noted that the weakening of the Left and the Congress has strengthened the BJP’s position in West Bengal. So is there a proposal for all the parties to come together and fight the BJP in the state?
No. The Trinamool is fighting all the 42 (Lok Sabha) seats in Bengal. Also for the Left… their rally was held recently… it was a fair rally.

AVISHEK G DASTIDAR: There is a theory that the Trinamool is creating the BJP hype in Bengal so that the Muslim votes in the state do not get divided.
We are not doing anything of that sort. The BJP, CPM and Congress in Bengal are working together, whether it is official, unofficial, we don’t know… However, in Delhi, with the Congress… we are all on the same page. Our focus is going to be jobs, agriculture, breakdown of institutions and corruption.

RAVISH TIWARI: On the ground, which party is your competitor in West Bengal?
The BJP, CPM, Congress. You can interpret it in any order. The bigger picture is that we have to do what it takes to remove Shah-Modi BJP from Delhi, including the much easier job of choosing a leader of that coalition after we have the requisite numbers.

ABANTIKA GHOSH: About the January 19 rally, the BJP said it was a stage full of prime ministers. You called it ‘United India’. There is a perception that ‘United India’ is already disunited and that the Trinamool is unhappy with Rahul Gandhi being at the helm.
No. You have to understand that 22 parties signed the document that was submitted to the Election Commission. The Congress party raised the Rafale issue. (On February 8) in Parliament, the five-page Rafale document prepared by the Congress…the Trinamool was distributing the leaflets. So the focus is much bigger. The focus is ‘Save India, Save Democracy, Save the Constitution’.

LIZ MATHEW: The Prime Minister has said that the Congress has outsourced its job to the Trinamool…
If you want me to give a clever line in retort, I can say the BJP has outsourced the party to Shah and Modi. If you talk to the people in the BJP they will tell you a lot of things. My observation is that Amit Shah and Narendra Modi are fighting this election on two fronts. They are fighting against a united Opposition and they are fighting another election within their own party.

AVISHEK G DASTIDAR: The coalition UPA II government, towards the end, wasn’t a stable one. Some credit for this also goes to the Trinamool Congress. Now you are again pitching for a coalition government.
Nobody pitches for a coalition government. A coalition evolves. The other thing is that the government will be formed by 272 MPs who can come and pledge support. Let’s not get carried away. They (the BJP) say, ‘We will sweep Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan’. This is hype. My guru in advertising, David Ogilvy, had a simple lesson. He would say you could go to a family and sell a pressure cooker and they will buy it from you. But the problem is when you have to get them to repurchase that pressure cooker. This is the BJP’s problem. Great packaging and marketing delivered in 2014. Now they are painting the pressure cooker up, patching it up.

RITIKA CHOPRA: What is the Trinamool’s stand on going back to the ballot paper system?
The stand of the 22 political parties is the same. Since you (the Election Commission) cannot provide 100% VVPAT, we all agreed to 50%. So it will be 50% VVPAT on a random basis.

The ideal thing to do would be to go back to the ballot paper. All the parties in discussion in Kolkata and New Delhi were practical. They thought 50% was a fair number to ask for. Some parties may have said something else earlier, but they have now agreed to the document that was submitted to the Election Commission. And I think that the results getting delayed by two or three days is fine till we get the right results.

AAKASH JOSHI: You said there is a danger to the Constitution from Amit Shah and Narendra Modi. Is there an ideological problem with the Sangh? In case there is a situation where the current prime minister is not there, would you join the coalition?
I am going to tell you what’s going to happen without being arrogant or making predictions. The NDA will get 150-160 seats. They will try to get to 272. So these situations that you mention are impossibilities. Nothing of this sort will arise. Once the numbers come in from Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Bihar — these are major states — and everyone will give their letter of support, then anything can happen.

No party is going to get 272 seats on its own. The BJP may claim they are getting 340 seats. As far as I have seen since January 19 to now, this is match on. I think we have got the momentum. We want to focus on what we have in common than what we don’t have in common. Eventually, what matters is how many seats you win.

DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: There have been allegations against the Trinamool in the Saradha and Rose Valley chit fund scams. There was the Narada sting operation as well.
Narada came out one month before the 2016 Assembly elections. The tape was played across every channel. What happened to the Trinamool after that? We won 211 seats out of 290. You throw unsubstantiated muck at that white sari of Mamata Banerjee, no one in Bengal will believe you.

DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: What about the allegations of the chief minister selling her paintings to chit fund scam companies? The CBI has sent notices in this regard to many people, including you.
The chief minister has made public statements regarding this matter. She paints. She donated all her paintings to Jago Bangla, the Trinamool Congress’s weekly newspaper. Jago Bangla sold the paintings in a public exhibition. The money came into the account. There is no secret here. Some companies which might have bought the paintings went belly up.

DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: With the CBI questioning Kolkata police commissioner Rajeev Kumar , are we going to see another dharna?
This country is in a dangerous situation. Sitting on dharna is similar to satyagraha. Mamata Banerjee doesn’t see if something is going to help the Trinamool or not. When we started the Singur protest on December 4, 2006, every political party said this is drama. Today, after 14 years, whatever the Trinamool said… every political party now has a similar view on land. Farmers are getting the best deal on land. The Supreme Court of India endorsed whatever we said. Mamata Banerjee is known for her conviction. Singur is one example.

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