October 31, 2014

Electoral Reality of Bengal versus The BJP Hype

Ever the master of hype, the BJP is feeding news channels in Delhi that it is a “big force” in West Bengal. Innocent of ground realities in West Bengal, these channels are dutifully reporting this joke as a fact. What is the reality? Consider the two recent assembly by-elections in West Bengal, Chowringhee and Basirhat South. These took place in September and tested the limits of the BJP’s advance in the state.

When I was growing up, it was often said that Chowringhee was one of the Congress’ safest seats in the country. Located in the heart of Kolkata, it represented and still represents the urban core of our cosmopolitan state capital. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the Congress led in the Chowringhee segment with 35,998 votes. Trinamool was close behind with 34,440 votes, the BJP had 29,503 and the CPI(M) 10,796.

The by-election numbers throw up an interesting contrast. The CPI(M) has declined still more, to 8,890 votes and finished fourth again. The Congress has slipped badly and declined to 23,317 votes, a loss of 12,600 votes or about 35 per cent of its Lok Sabha tally. The BJP has slipped to reach 23,984 votes and finish second. Trinamool ran away with the seat, getting 38,328 votes.

How Chowringhee voted is an indicator of the continued popularity of Mamata Banerjee and Trinamool in urban areas, particularly in the context of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation election of summer 2015. It put paid to the BJP’s hopes of a spectacular show in the city. The party had invested a lot of hopes on Chowringhee. Amit Shah, BJP national president, had even cancelled a meeting in north Bengal to come for a canvassing event in Chowringhee.

In the end, it wasn’t enough. Not even the smear campaign run by a section of the media could shake the popular trust that Mamata Banerjee enjoys. In fact, it may have worked to her advantage.

Basirhat South too has not been a traditional Trinamool seat. It was won by a CPI(M) candidate in 2011. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP lost in the overall parliamentary constituency but led in the Basirhat South assembly segment by 32,000 votes. When the CPI(M) MLA died, and a by-election resulted, political analysts were predicting a BJP-CPI(M) fight.

We kept a low profile and picked Dipendu Biswas, a popular local boy and former captain of India’s football team, as our candidate. He campaigned hard and reduced the BJP’s lead to a mere 1,700 votes. The CPI(M), which had won the seat in 2011, ended up third. Seeing the response to Dipendu Biswas, in a typically emotional reaction Mamatadi announced him as Trinamool candidate for the 2016 assembly election. I must point out here that the winning BJP nominee was gracious in acknowledging Trinamool’s improved performance and our ability to cut the margin.

All in all, the battle for the opposition space is between the CPI(M) and the BJP. The 2016 West Bengal election has only one frontrunner: Trinamool. As for the television channels in Delhi, they can continue living in cloud-cuckoo land.

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

October 28, 2014

The Black Money Fiasco

... The BJP has made a laughing stock of itself.

The higher they rise, the harder they fall. Narendra Modi’s crack communication strategy, which served him so well in the past few years and hyped and exaggerated his achievements in Gujarat to an extraordinary degree before the 2014 Lok Sabha election, suddenly seems to have deserted him.

Like Karna, his government cannot seem to recall the crucial mantras when it needs them most. With the black money fiasco, the government, so cocky and hubristic till the other day, has made a laughing stock of itself.

By taking over the black money case from the Finance Ministry and saying it will directly monitor the investigations, the Supreme Court has expressed a deep lack of confidence in the Modi regime. This has only confirmed that the government was not and is not serious about unearthing the truth about illegal funds lying abroad.

Note the government’s actions in the past few days. It began by mimicking its predecessor, the discredited UPA government, and refusing to release the names shared by foreign governments and agencies. Its excuse was exactly that of the previous government, an excuse the BJP had pooh-poohed while in opposition.

Then it said it would “leak” names, following that it said it would “share” some names. What finally appeared were three names of inconsequential businesspersons – with very little money in their bank accounts.Between the Congress and the BJP, the black money account-holders have been given ample time to withdraw their money and park it elsewhere.

Meanwhile the government began leaking names of rival politicians to “friendly journalists”, again following the very skulduggery and cloak-and-dagger use of the media that Modi had criticised with such venom and mocked as part of the so-called “Delhi culture”. Had the Supreme Court not come down so hard, in the coming weeks, more names would have been “revealed” to more “elite journalists” and “pseudo-secular news channels”. And chargesheets and convictions, or actual return of black money (promised in 100 days)? You thought the BJP was serious?

Read the feedback on Twitter. Modi’s biggest backers are cursing his government. What a communication and perception mess. And so quickly.

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

October 16, 2014

Blessing the right to love: Pope Francis’ revolutionary attempts

[This article was carried by The Times Of India | Thursday, October 16, 2014]

I don’t discuss religion or wear it on my sleeve. It’s not part of my usual social interaction or professional and friendship choices. I’ve been married twice, both times to Hindus. Having said that, i’m a fairly devout Catholic.

I practise my religion in my own quiet way — going to Church every Sunday, praying for a minute in the morning and a minute at night, saying grace before and after meals, and fasting, as the devout do, on two days in the year: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

My religion has been unobtrusive and has never interfered in my daily life. Yet, i must confess three things about the Catholic Church have troubled me. First, it makes no allowance for the breakdown of a marriage, and for irreconcilable differences to come up in a couple. This is unrealistic. A divorced person cannot take communion in Church. Neither can the child of a divorced person or a live-in couple be baptised. The full blessing of the Church is denied to them.

Second, the Church’s views on abortion and contraception are too extreme. Finally, the Church’s position on gay and lesbian people has similarly been unfair, at least to my mind.

If these issues have troubled me, it is not because i see myself as any sort of a rebel. Rather they seem to contravene the freedom and liberty that Christ preached and that his work was all about. The Bible, at least the Bible as i was taught it by my grandmother years ago, tells us only the Lord can judge people. People cannot judge people.

For years i kept my opinions to myself, sharing them with only a few friends and family members but unwilling to rock the boat within the broader Catholic community. Now i find courage to do so from none else but the leader of the Catholic Church, the Pope himself.

In September, Pope Francis presided over an extraordinary wedding event in the Vatican. The 20 couples who got married by him included divorcees, live-in couples and out-of-wedlock parents. For me it was a very emotional and moving message from the Pope.

The Pope has summoned an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which is currently meeting in Rome. This is just the third such convening of the Synod in 50 years and it is discussing the Church’s attitude towards the modern family. The Vatican has released a preliminary document calling for the Church to welcome and accept those who have divorced and their children, as well as gay people and unmarried couples.

What Pope Francis is attempting is revolutionary. It is also essential, i feel, for the Church’s renewal and continued relevance to the millions who cherish it, and cherish an association with it, but cannot get themselves to agree with all its doctrinal principles. Indeed, other Christian orders have been quicker to coordinate their faith with modern lives and mores and the Catholic Church is making up for lost time.

There is a feeling that the Church is in a moment of dramatic transition, not unknown in its history but still worth taking note of. Pope Francis himself is from Argentina, the first Pope from the southern hemisphere and the first non-European Pope since the middle of the 8th century. In the years to come efforts of Pope Francis and the current Synod, as and when these reach fruition, could be considered even more far-reaching than deliberations of the Second Vatican Council, which began in 1962 and explored the relationship of the Church with the contemporary world.

It is useful to remember that the First Vatican Council had been summoned as far back as 1868 and for a century, the Church had neither approached nor addressed issues of renewal. Of the many changes Vatican II (as the Second Vatican Council came to be known) led to, the most important was the legitimisation of local and regional languages. It came to be belatedly recognised that all Catholics were no longer Latin speaking and not even European or aspiring to speak a classical European language.

Rather they were as diverse as human society — happy to follow their faith, worship as part of the Catholic Church, and still remain true to the mainstay culture and traditions of their society and country. In the larger scheme, Vatican II acknowledged that the days of European missionaries turning up in a distant land, disembarking from a boat, and preaching an alien, European way of life, had long ended.

If the Catholic faith had to survive, it had to make sense to adherents in their local contexts. In any case, Catho-lic communities such as those in Kerala are far older than European Catholicism.

I live in hope that the ongoing Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops will bring the Church into conformity with 21st century society and the human instinct for individual freedom and choice as much as — or even to a greater extent than — Vatican II did. Vatican II recognised geographical and linguistic diversity. Today, the time has come to recognise and validate social and familial diversity.

That is why, this Sunday morning, when I go to Church, i will say a special prayer for the Pope and the Synod. The Lord bless them.

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

[This article was carried by The Times Of India | Thursday, October 16, 2014]

October 08, 2014

Kolkata diaspora and its delusions

1. Did the writer spend a significant time of his or her early and formative years in Kolkata?

2. Was the writer educated in Kolkata in one of the city’s best-known and elite institutions of learning?

3. Is the writer an exile from Kolkata and West Bengal, pushed out during the wasted years of Communist rule (1977-2011) or in the tumult that immediately preceded it?

4. Is the writer now a distinguished professional, usually in the media, academia, literature or a related field?

The four questions above comprise my Kolkata Diaspora Test. If the answers to three of the four questions are “Yes”, I tend to take what the writer has put down – and it is usually a put down – about contemporary Kolkata with a bucketful of salt.

There is a type of person who once lived in Kolkata, now visits it for 10 days in a year – generally in the Christmas season and the final week of December – but travels the world parading himself or herself as a specialist on not just Kolkata as it once was but Kolkata as it still is and Kolkata as it must always be.

More often than not the person has no clue about contemporary reality in the city or of the immediate issue – controversy, protest, achievement, anything – that is exercising the city. Yet, the writer will happily churn out a series of indignant articles, essays or at least tweets.

It is not that these people are not talented or that I don’t respect them in another context. The best example I can think of is Swapan Dasgupta, the columnist in Delhi and a forceful voice for right-wing political opinion. I invariably disagree with Swapan and his politics but do admire his felicity of prose, his cogency of argument and his scholarship. Not everybody is this engaging. There are some also-rans in the Kolkata diaspora who do nothing but troll 24/7.

What is common to many of these folk is a complete absence of informed perspective about today’s Kolkata. Their views are shaped by what the afternoon copy of The Telegraph tells them or what headlines Anandabazar Patrika, in its whimsical and oh-so-dynamic wisdom, has chosen that morning.

If one were to believe a couple of tendentious papers and the diaspora intelligentsia that seems to be an important target audience for these papers, Kolkata is as broken as Berlin in 1945, there is an Afghanistan-style civil war on in West Bengal, and Amit Shah is about to come riding on a white horse to sweep the 2016 election. It is a make-believe world that exists largely because of Twitter and Facebook, and is exaggerated and magnified by re-tweets and Facebook 'likes'.

A recent episode that worked on similar lines was the unrest in Jadavpur University, where initial student anger, shaped by the perception of an incident, was deftly exploited. The facts of the case have come out now and the truth has emerged. It is very different from the horrific and morbid pictures that were being painted.

It is worth noting that social media unwittingly fanned the fires. This is especially so since many JU alumni, who are following fine careers in other cities and other countries, conflated news from the campus with happy memories of the idealism of their student days. They took strident positions – with Facebook posts and tweets and re-tweets – without knowing the situation on the ground.

Those raising revolutionary slogans on Facebook and Twitter, from distant locations in Gurgaon or the West Coast of America, need to embrace a few lessons. Such emotionalism from afar, such a sometimes misleading mix of nostalgia, the play of memory and political prejudice, can lead to perfectly rational people adopting outlandish stances.

This happens to so many Kolkata diaspora intellectuals, who answer “Yes” to at least three of the four questions posed at the beginning of my blog. It’s sad.

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