April 04, 2014

On the Road before E Day

Day 8: On the road or in the sky?

The Trinamool Congress is a party of a single superstar candidate: Mamata Banerjee. A few of us assist her with party work and public outreach, but for the most part, in the 42 seats of West Bengal and seats in other states where our candidates are competitive, it is Mamatadi whom the people want to see and hear.

In that sense, a multi-stage election – West Bengal votes in five phases – is a blessing. It allows Mamatadi to travel widely and cover all the constituencies in our state as well as a few others outside Bengal. This is something close to Mamatadi’s heart because she enjoys travelling into the districts and the rural heartland of Bengal, as well as interacting with ordinary people rather than just political workers.

Even as chief minister, Mamatadi puts road trips to good use. She calls this “taking the Kolkata secretariat and government to the people” and going where the people and their problems really are. This gives her a feel of popular issues and distinguishes her from other politicians. During election campaigns like the current one, however, she does take to helicopters. Saving time, covering large distances and maximising the number of meetings gets priority.

We hire helicopters from private companies and since helicopters have become such a topic of discussion in these elections, let me lay down a few points. India’s biggest helicopter operator is Pawan Hans Corporation. It is a public sector corporation, owned by the people of India, and we believe political parties should be able to hire helicopters from it.

As it happens, this is not allowed. On April 9, 2009, the Election Commission (EC) issued a memo that said it had gone over the existing rules, which denied political parties the right to hire helicopters from Pawan Hans on the grounds that it was a public sector company, and saw no reason to revoke these rules. The EC iterated that hiring Pawan Hans helicopters was out of bounds for political parties.

Trinamool considers this an odd directive. Taken to its logical conclusion, party campaigners should not be allowed to buy Air-India or Indian Railways tickets to travel for election work. After all, these too are public sector institutions. Nevertheless, we have abided by the EC’s memo and make no attempt to hire Pawan Hans helicopters.

However, it has come to our notice that senior members and national leaders of top all-India parties have no qualms in renting Pawan Hans helicopters for election campaign travel. Without seeking to target any individuals – and while continuing to insist the EC memo of April 2009 needs to be amended – we are astounded at this contradiction. It needs to be addressed.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress