March 30, 2014

On the Road before E Day | March 29, 2014

Day 6: Will the real BJP please stand up?

In the hills of Darjeeling, S.S. Ahluwalia, the party’s Lok Sabha candidate from the constituency, promises to divide Bengal and create a new state. In Kolkata North, Rahul Sinha, the BJP’s candidate from the constituency, denies any such plans. “Listen to me,” he says, “I am the state party president. Don’t listen to that man.” The “that man” is Ahluwalia.

It is astonishing that the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) has done a deal with the BJP yet again. In 2009, the two parties combined to have Jaswant Singh elected by over 200,000 votes. Once chosen by the good people of Darjeeling, Singh simply disappeared and was the absent constituency MP. In fact, the GJM asked people to file an FIR and a complaint about a missing person (their MP).

The BJP is speaking about Darjeeling in two voices. The Congress has done one better – or worse, choose your adjective – by speaking in a non-voice. A few days ago, Rahul Gandhi was touring north Bengal. After addressing a public meeting, he was walking off the stage and leaving for his next engagement. Suddenly, a journalist shouted out to him: “Mr Gandhi, Mr Gandhi, a question… What do you have to say about the GJM’s demand for a separate state?”

Mr Gandhi stopped. He thought for a moment. He stepped back a few steps, and then he answered the question: “No comment.”

Postscript: Whatever the BJP candidate may say, the Trinamool Congress is committed to a united Bengal, with equal, fair and just treatment, and quick development, for the people of Darjeeling. Acting on these words, Mamata Banerjee has made about 30 trips to Darjeeling and north Bengal since becoming chief minister in 2011.

This is in contrast to the chief ministers and top leaders of the CPI(M) who, over 34 years of Left Front rule (1977-2011), barely visited or even thought about Darjeeling.

To put things in perspective, Mamata Banerjee has promised justice to Darjeeling. However, to use her own words, the state will be broken up only over her dead body.

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

March 28, 2014

On the Road before E Day | March 27, 2014

Day 4: A day in the tea gardens

My trip to north Bengal and the Darjeeling constituency has been a most unusual one. I have participated in a series of singular but heart-warming political and semi-political interactions that can only happen here. Earlier this week, I met wives of tea garden workers from 11 gardens at the Gulma Tea Estate. I was seeking votes for Bhaichung Bhutia, Trinamool Congress candidate from Darjeeling, but that seemed almost beside the point.

As we walked into the Recreation Club at the tea estate, I was struck by the venue. Despite its grand name, the “Club” was really a weather-beaten wooden room that was used by workers. Welcomed in the traditional manner, with sandalwood paste applied to my forehead, I decided to ignore the lone chair and sit on the floor with the others. It was an icebreaker as the shy women opened up with their problems. It helped when I told them my wife had grown up in the tea gardens of north Bengal and we knew the region extremely well.

For this humble tea-garden community, the big issues of a national election seemed rather distant. Rather, it was immediate problems they wanted the government – and specifically Mamata Banerjee, who was mentioned often in our conversation – to sort out. These problems may seem minor in a broader context, but to the women of Gulma, they were and are existential issues.

Hospital access from outlying and remote tea gardens, one of my interlocutors told me, was a concern. The winding journey it required meant people had to pay for fuel for the ambulance. Often this led to poor families borrowing money – not to buy medicines but to buy fuel! Another lady spoke about the quality of rice and wheat in the ration shops and the fact that there were so few ration shops in the first place.

A young girl spoke up towards the end and said she was worried the delay in getting appropriate caste and identity certificates would deprive her of the chance to apply for scholarships. I took notes, promised to help, and promised to be back.

On the return journey, I was lost in thought. In that interaction, not once was Delhi mentioned, not once was the UPA or the NDA, or the blockbuster issues and scandals influencing the national capital’s self-important media, raised. In Gulma, I sensed the rhythms of the real India. Thank heavens there were no television cameras around.

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

March 27, 2014

On the Road before E Day | March 26, 2014

Day 3: Bhaichung has a goal

The Trinamool Congress is a bottom-up party, one that has risen from the grassroots. If you look at the map of Bengal, Trinamool is moving vertically – from the bottom, upwards – in another manner as well. It is growing from its base in southern Bengal to the northernmost extremities of the state and acquiring a dominating pan-Bengal presence. The 2014 Lok Sabha election will be our first as an independent force in north Bengal. In 2009, we had an alliance partner and left much of north Bengal to it. The consequences were disappointing, for both Trinamool workers and local voters.

This year, a clutch of north Bengal seats goes to polls early. On April 17, there is voting in Coochbehar, Alipurduars, Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling. A week later, on April 24, Raiganj, Balurghat, Maldaha Uttar (Malda North) and Maldaha Dakshin (Malda South) will see voters queue up. Jangipur and Murshidabad, traditionally the gateway to north Bengal, also vote on April 24.

On Wednesday, March 26, we had a busy day in the Darjeeling Lok Sabha constituency. This is a sprawling and diversely-populated area. The ethnic composition and voter concerns vary dramatically as one comes down from the Himalayan uplands to the plains. We were in Siliguri, close to where Mamata Banerjee addressed two public meetings in the day.

In Siliguri, I caught up with Bhaichung Bhutia, one of India’s greatest soccer players and the lovable man who is Trinamool candidate from Darjeeling. A quiet, understated bloke, Bhaichung left me impressed. His wife and little children – a boy and a girl, both aged under five – had come to keep him company for a few days. It was nice to watch the determined, strong-willed footballer play a gentle father.

Bhaichung and I were together at a most unusual political event. It was not so much a public meeting as a live chat show, with me asking him questions – about himself, his decision to join politics, what drew him to Trinamool, his aspirations for his people and for the Darjeeling he’s embraced. He was refreshingly candid and spoke expansively in Bengali, English and his faltering Hindi. I think he left the crowd impressed.

Bhaichung is fighting a tough seat, but going about it methodically and always conscious of the obstacles in front of the goal. In the best traditions of sportspersons, he’s refusing to resort to “yellow card” tactics and play dirty with his opponents. In the time I have known him, I have developed a great respect for him. This is the sort of person we need in politics – an achiever from another field, someone with experience and a sense of community, with a thinking mind and a warm heart, someone who inspires young people.

I hope Darjeeling agrees with me.

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

March 26, 2014

On the Road before E Day | March 24 & 25, 2014

Day 1 & 2

Being part of an election campaign is exhilarating, exciting but also exhausting. In Kolkata it's required me to re-order my schedules and made a regular office-goer of me. Every evening I find myself in the Trinamool Congress headquarters in the eastern part of the city, talking to colleagues and going through papers and publicity material, doing what has been assigned to me. The Trinamool office is an old haunt. Some would call it a ramshackle building but for me it has a certain charm, and many, many memories.

On Monday and Tuesday, March 24 and 25, I didn’t go to my room at Trinamool Bhawan. Instead, I travelled to Jharkhand, a state our party is targeting quite seriously. We have filed nominations for eight of the 14 Lok Sabha seats here. More than that, we are treating this election as a semi-final before the Jharkhand assembly polls later in 2014. As such, between the parliamentary election and the assembly election, 2014 could be Trinamool’s breakthrough year in Jharkhand.

Evidently other parties also think so. As we announced our decision to contest seats in Jharkhand, three parties came up with offers of alliances or seat-sharing arrangements. This would have ensured an easy route to establishing a presence in the state but, in her trademark manner, Mamata Banerjee declined. Instinctively she prefers the longer and more sustainable route.

In Jharkhand I had a busy two days. Our opponents resorted to dirty tricks fairly quickly. Trinamool’s election committee convenor in Dhanbad was suddenly arrested, apparently in a follow-up to a case filed in 1993 – 21 years ago! Next, the Trinamool candidate in Lohardaga found his nomination papers challenged by the Congress – which is otherwise absent from serious electoral contention in Jharkhand. It took a 36-hour legal battle for justice to be done and for our candidate to win the right to fight the election.

I was involved in much of this and marched with three of my party colleagues as they led processions to file their nomination papers. Later, I addressed a media conference, the first time I fielded questions and delivered answers entirely in Hindi, which is not my strongest language. Thankfully, the local journalists in Ranchi were in generous mood and encouraged and helped me find words as I went along. They recognised a genuine attempt and an honesty of purpose. Hopefully, so will the voters of Jharkhand when it comes to blessing Trinamool nominees.

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

March 21, 2014

Khushwant Singh Sir: India’s original KS

“Here lies one who spared neither man nor God / Waste not your tears on him, he was a sod / Writing nasty things he regarded as great fun / Thank the Lord he is dead, this son of a gun.”

--- Self-written obituary [Death at my Doorstep, Roli Books]

“What was a four-wheeled Victoria taking well-draped ladies out to eat the Indian air I made a noisy, rumbustious, jet-propelled vehicle of information, controversy and amusement… till the Illustrated did become a weekly habit of the English-reading pseudo-elite of the country.”

--- Khushwant Singh Sir, on the change wrought in his tenure [1969-1978]

“All I hope is that when death comes to me, it comes swiftly, without much pain; like fading away in sound slumber. Till that time I will strive to live as full a life as I did in my younger days. One should prepare oneself to die like a man; no moaning, groaning or crying for reprieve.”

--- Khushwant Singh Sir, in his final epitaph.

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

March 06, 2014

Left got left out... Rise of Federal Front.

By calling off her party’s alliance with the CPI(M) and the CPI, Jayalalitha, the AIADMK leader and Tamil Nadu chief minister, has not just killed the supposed “Third Front”, she has actually ended a month-long, Communist-scripted soap opera. She has also exposed the hollow claims of CPI(M) functionaries who mythically and exaggeratedly claim to influence national politics, even as they lose ground in states they once dominated with their jackboots.

Let us go over the sequence of events. In early February, 11 parties met in Delhi for a private chat. Right after the meeting, the voluble and silver-tongued representative of the CPI(M) came out, addressed the media and began spinning a story about the birth of the Third Front. By the evening, two of the 11 parties themselves had debunked this theory and insisted the collective had got together for simply coordination in Parliament, not to draw election strategies. Further, within the four-party Left Front, two smaller parties were uncertain.

The following Sunday, February 9, the general secretary of the CPI(M) turned up for a public meeting at Kolkata’s Brigade Parade Grounds and again made a pitch for the so-called Third Front. The next morning, CPI(M) busybodies met the leaders of the Janata Dal (United) and Janata Dal (Secular) for breakfast in Delhi, and again whispered Third Front sweet nothings to journalists.

Soon after, the leader of the Samajwadi Party made a categorical statement that any non-BJP, non-Congress front, whether Third Front or otherwise, would only emerge after the elections. There was no question of a pre-poll alliance. The Communist balloon had well and truly been tricked. Within hours, the voluble and silver-tongued representative of the CPI(M) had to eat crow and agree that the Third Front was at best a post-poll idea. Of course, his party was still banking on the Tamil Nadu alliance. Now it can’t even do that.

Frankly the Third Front is not just dead, it was never born. The Federal Front, suggested by Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal and leader of the Trinamool Congress, is another matter. It has a future and is worth discussing.

What is the Federal Front? Is it the same as the Third Front? Are the differences only semantic, or are they substantial? Mamata Banerjee’s belief has been that the Trinamool government has done a good, pro-development job in West Bengal for close to three years now. People are happy with us; voters have blessed us in election after election and will, we believe, show their support and affection for us in the 2014 Lok Sabha election as well. This will give Trinamool an overwhelming majority of seats from West Bengal.

Like the Trinamool government in West Bengal, there are other regional-party state governments – led by able and performing chief ministers – that will do well in their states and come to Delhi with a sizeable number of Lok Sabha seats. These parties have no grand design. They have only the welfare of their states and their people in mind. They believe states and state governments deserve more autonomy and resources to serve their people, and cannot be force-fed ‘one size fits all’ plans from Delhi. Finally, all these parties are opposed to corruption in public life, to dynastic traditions in politics, and to seeking votes in the name of riots and communal identities.

After the Lok Sabha verdict, these parties will form the Federal Front. They will be motivated by just the desire to maximise developmental benefits for those living in their states. The Third Front on the other hand is a hobby horse of the Communists, who want to use the power of regional and smaller parties to manipulate their way to influence without responsibility, and to promote obsolete agendas that have nothing to do with the lives and problems of common people, and certainly not with the aspirations of states.

In sum, the Third Front is a Communist day-dream, from which the Communists themselves have now been expelled. As for Mamata Banerjee’s conceptualisation of the Federal Front, it is an idea whose time has come.

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

March 05, 2014

Election dates announced for the carnival of democracy.

It’s here. The election dates have been announced. The big carnival of democracy is upon us. The vote is a special, sacred thing – it unites us all, it discriminates not between rich and poor, billionaire and street-side dweller, between caste and community. It’s our greatest festival, drawing from our greatest text: our Constitution.

As a child, I remember my mother telling me – cautioning me – “beware the fury of the patient man (or woman)”. I wonder if it was an early lesson, a warning almost, for a career in politics. Governments forget this. Heady with power and triumphalism, they forget that judgement day will come and the people will demand accountability.

The voter is patient, she is generous, she is understanding; but should the need arise, she can be unforgiving. It is the fury of the patient voter that singes and smashes self-important and under-performing governments and ministers, those who have betrayed the public trust. In a sense, this makes every election a revolution.

My first big closeup view from within the party was in 2004. Then, I experienced this inspirational and at once cataclysmic phenomenon again in 2009 and 2011. Mamata Banerjee, the Trinamool Congress’ founder and leader, accomplished a 30-year mission and unseated the Left Front government, which had held back the development of West Bengal over two generations. This summer, the voter will deliver a similar message to the UPA government. From my personal, business and political travels and conversations in different parts of India, I have little hesitation in declaring that the Congress-led government in New Delhi is the most unpopular in India’s recent history.

Elections are not just about politics; primarily, they are about people. An election in which 800 million are eligible to vote, from the Himalayas to the tip of the Indian Ocean, is a logistical marvel. My admiration for the men and women who work for the Election Commission and run the five-yearly election project knows no bounds. I wish them luck for the weeks ahead.

As for my beloved fellow Indians, the men and women who make up our great country and spectacular society, all I can say is: Choose wisely. Your vote is not just your vote. It is your blessing to your children, for it will determine their future.

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

March 02, 2014

Have pitched camp in Delhi...

I’m rarely in Delhi on Sundays. When Parliament is in session, I tend to fly back to Kolkata on Friday evenings. Sometimes work keeps me back on Saturday, but never on a Sunday. The election season, however, changes us all, and I’ve spent the weekend in Delhi. It’s likely I’ll spend several of the coming weeks (and weekends) in the capital as the most important five-yearly event in the life of our democracy is upon us.

This morning, right after church, I went to the Trinamool office in Delhi and spent several hours on the lawns with our new friends from Team Anna. They were not conventional politicians – in fact they were not politicians at all, one could argue. Yet, their public-spiritedness, their enthusiasm and sheer passion, and their cult-like commitment to their cause was infectious. As they sang songs, it was natural to hum along.

As some of you may know, Mamata Banerjee and Anna Hazare met recently and have agreed to work together. This is not an electoral alliance or anything of the sort, but Anna has graciously offered to campaign for Mamatadi and for Trinamool candidates in the coming election. We believe he will help us expand our footprint.

What is the purpose of focusing energies on a national election and on states beyond Bengal? The question is legitimate but ignores the strides Trinamool has made in regions beyond Bengal. A few months ago, I was sent by Mamatadi to help be a part of the party campaign in Manipur. I was left overwhelmed and impressed by my remarkable colleagues in Imphal. They performed astoundingly. Dismissed as no-hopers, we won seven seats and today Trinamool is the principal opposition party in the Manipur assembly. We also have five MLAs in Arunachal Pradesh and one each in Assam and Uttar Pradesh. This is a small start, but good going for a party that was born only 16 years ago.

Our dream for 2014 is to open our non-Bengal account in the Lok Sabha. We have identified a few seats where the party has a reasonable chance. In West Bengal itself, we are confident Mamatadi’s good governance, credibility of purpose and consistent opposition to the anti-people UPA government, especially in the past two years, will help us win a majority of the 42 Lok Sabha seats. People will decide.

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