April 30, 2014

Silently, far from the cackle of TV studios...

Every election has a narrative. In a conventional campaign, spread over three to four weeks, the narrative is consistent and can be carried through till the very end. In a multi-phase election, stretching across two months or more, the narrative is challenged and effort is needed to sustain it.

Why does this happen? Frankly, fatigue and familiarity set in. Pushing the same message or set of messages becomes difficult. In the 2014 election, a campaign that in effect began in February will have to be lengthened to the middle of May. In the case of West Bengal, polling is taking place in five phases, from the foothills of the Himalayas to the vastness of Bengal’s heartland to the mangrove forests of the Sunderbans. Can a common narrative survive this gruelling test of geography and time?

In the Trinamool Congress, we certainly believe so. For us the narrative of the election is the good work done by Mamata Banerjee’s government since it took charge of Writers’ Buildings in the summer of 2011. The Lok Sabha poll is primarily a referendum on the new Bengal that we have sought to build, brick by brick, inch by inch, gradually.

Take two examples of initiatives that are little noticed by the hyperbole-obsessed media but are nevertheless expected to yield us handsome returns in the voting booth. Kanyashree is a scheme that is being much appreciated especially in north and central Bengal, where poverty figures are high and where the girl child is an object of acute neglect.

Our state has had a long-standing problem in these regions of girls being married off early, in their teens. Consequently, they become mothers at a very young age and that leads to health issues for the girl in question as well as for the family and society at large. For the girl’s parents getting her married off early is a practical solution to the household budget. It means there is one less mouth to feed. There is no incentive to delay marriage and educate the girl.

Kanyashree is a state government scheme that has stepped into this gap. It offers girl children and their families Rs 500 every year through their period of schooling. When a girl turns 18, Rs 25,000 is transferred to the family’s bank account. This money can be used for higher studies or, if the family and girl so choose, to pay for wedding expenses. The option is personal.

Kanyashree has proved an immensely popular scheme. Already, we are seeing growing retention of girls in schools and drop-out rates are falling. In a five to seven year period, I am confident we will have dramatic social and economic results. UNICEF too are impressed. Last week they confirmed that they would partner the West Bengal government on this project. Silently, far from the cackle of television studios, a revolution has begun in rural Bengal.

The other mission that Mamatadi has focused on and that is paying us dividends is the determined setting up of a network of fair-price medicine shops, to provide drugs and medicines at affordable rates to ordinary people. Out-of-pocket healthcare expenses are high in our country. A particularly debilitating illness, and the associated costs, can push a family living just above the poverty line back into destitution. Access to and assurance of cheap medicines is a boon in this regard.

These are only two snapshots of the assiduous and optimistic change that we have succeeded in introducing to the heart of Bengal in the past three years. That is why, miles from the shouting matches between Congress and BJP spokespersons, undeterred by the screaming and name calling of discredited and desperate CPI(M) busybodies, the Bengali voter is renewing her trust in Mamatadi.

As the election reaches its final fortnight, the Trinamool narrative is proving persuasive.

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

April 25, 2014

On the Road before E Day

Day 16: Does Church have a poll role?

I am a devout, church-going Catholic and take religion seriously. However, I don’t wear it on my sleeve and try not to make it part of my public persona. Despite these efforts, there are occasions when some people choose to misunderstand me and miss a nuanced point.

This happened the other evening on Times Now, while discussing the letter written by Father Frazer Mascarenhas, a priest and the principal of St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, to all the students of his college. Without explicitly naming parties, Father Mascarenhas made a pitch for the Congress. He urged students to be wary of the Gujarat model and praised some key programmes of the UPA government. The implication was obvious.

As an individual, Father Mascarenhas is entirely entitled to his views. He is free to write a newspaper article stating his case, and criticising or praising a political party. However, in writing to his students in his official capacity as principal, in writing on official stationery and under the St Xavier’s College letterhead, he clearly and absolutely overreached himself. In that narrow sense, his action is indefensible. I say this even though I share misgivings about the Gujarat model’s political sustainability.

I was keen to see, however, that the debate did not take a religious turn and did not lead to accusations that all Catholics, or all Christians, were being asked to vote against the BJP and in favour of the Congress. I believe Father Mascarenhas’ personal view is not the institutional view of the Church nor the view of every single Christian. Indian Christians are as heterogeneous and as politically divided as members of any other community.

We need to understand the social-religious structure of India’s 24 million Christians, some 80 per cent of whom are Catholic. Father Mascarenhas reports to a Provincial. In turn the Provincial reports to an Archbishop. The Archbishop reports to a Cardinal. India has five Cardinals. All of them vote in a papal election. One of the senior-most is Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.

On February 11, Cardinal Gracias issued a letter to the Catholic community in anticipation of the general election. He laid down the social and economic context of the election and the Church’s concerns. He prayed for, among other things, a leadership that would “uphold the secular character of our nation and promote communal harmony and a spirit of inter-religious dialogue and understanding”. Other than a general wish list, there was no reference to parties or political programmes. In fact, the letter said:

At the outset we wish to make it clear to all that the Catholic Church does not identify herself with any political party. But we have a responsibility as bishops to urge every eligible citizen to exercise his/her right and duty to vote and do so prudently, carefully and judiciously. All our parish priests are urged to impress on the people their obligation in this regard. We must be convinced that every vote does count. We owe it to ourselves, our children and our country not to let go of this opportunity to get involved in bettering the history, culture and destiny of our nation.

I fail to say how the paragraph above, and the tone of Cardinal Gracias’ letter, is even remotely objectionable. Of course, I would be the first to admit that Father Mascarenhas’ letter violates the spirit of Cardinal Gracias’ message.

On April 6, the final Sunday before voting began in the 16th Lok Sabha election, every church in India, across denominations, had a special prayer for “free and fair” polling. Again, no parties were mentioned and no preferences were stated. These two signals – of February 11 and April 6 – encapsulate the Indian Christian religious leadership’s official view of the election.

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 | Friday, April 25, 2014]

April 19, 2014

On the Road before E Day

Day 15: Stop cribbing about opinion polls, enjoy them.

In recent days, we have seen four opinion polls related to the 16th Lok Sabha election and conducted by different news channels and their partner agencies. In the case of West Bengal, the findings and predictions have varied but conformed to a trend:

The NDTV-Hansa poll gives the Trinamool Congress 44 per cent of the vote and 28 seats

The CNN-IBN-Lokniti-CSDS poll gives Trinamool 38 per cent of the vote and 23-29 seats

The ABP News-Nielsen poll gives Trinamool 41 per cent of the vote and 28 seats

The Headlines Today poll gives Trinamool 35 per cent of the vote and 23-27 seats

Never mind what our internal assessment is, but it is not our style to crib and dispute opinion poll figures - have never done, will never do. Let's look at the broader picture. First, the opinion polls have got the trend and the sense of the Trinamool domination right. Second, having studied opinion polls before, I know conversion of votes into seats is very difficult in a multi-cornered contest. As such, honest mistakes, misappraisals and underestimations can happen.

To me the big story of the opinion polls – and of the election of 2014 – is not the determined march of Trinamool. That was expected and our curve is still rising across the state, especially in central and north Bengal (Trinamool has always dominated south Bengal).

The big story is not even the decimation of the Congress, which is widely expected to have the lowest poll percentage among the 4 major parties in West Bengal. The Congress is still breathing in only two of Bengal’s 19 districts: Malda and Murshidabad. The ABP-Nielsen poll was the cruellest to the Congress, giving it a mere eight per cent of the vote. If true, this will lead to irreversible decline.

The big story is the battle for the silver spoon – or, as we say in friendly corporate football tournaments, the Loser's Plate - a pointless contest for number two between the CPI(M)/Left Front and the BJP. The first is slipping rapidly and the second is rising from a very low base. Yet, it needs to be understood that the BJP will still end up with a big zero in Bengal.

While the Left-BJP tussle is fascinating for political observers, it doesn’t really make a difference to Trinamool and doesn’t threaten us in the least. It does tell us though that CPI(M) supporters are frustrated and troubled by the state of their party. In a desperate attempt to stop Mamata Banerjee, they are even willing to do a Faustian pact with the BJP.

Looking ahead, in the 2016 assembly election, the BJP, the rump Congress and the CPI(M) will fight each other. They will diminish the Index of Opposition Unity and split the anti-Trinamool vote. That can leave only one party the winner to continue their work of development for Bengal.

No wonder there is a sense of quiet satisfaction in Trinamool Bhavan, where I write this blog.

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

April 15, 2014

On the Road before E Day

Day 14: Will the Congress and BJP talk policy... not trivia?

This is turning out to be a bizarre and disappointing election in terms of the issues being raised and the concerns being highlighted. Some minor former official writes a book; a politician’s marital status becomes headline news; a high-profile candidate’s sister and her off-the-cuff remarks are interpreted by overzealous journalists: is this really what the world’s biggest democratic exercise is about? Do 814 million voters, selecting their representatives to Parliament, deserve such trivialisation?

Who does this silly discourse suit? It is perfect for the two national parties, the Congress and the BJP, which have near identical positions on many important matters and policies and are doing their best not to let the people know. If you think that’s an exaggeration, I’ll leave you with five examples.

First, on FDI in retail the Congress has been supportive and the BJP, for all its pretence, ambiguous, couching its opposition in greyness. In its manifesto, it says it opposes FDI in retail but doesn’t explicitly say it will reverse the UPA government’s policy. Why? Am I smelling something – or smelling too much?

Second, on FDI in a host of other sensitive sectors, such as insurance and pensions, the Congress and the BJP have been on the same side when the cameras are off in Parliament. They have the same clients and lobbyists to pander to.

Third, on the Land Acquisition Act, for all the big words, the Congress and the BJP jointly passed a law that still permits forced acquisition and severely curtails the farmer’s right to a fair and informed transaction.

Fourth, on the Food Security Act, the Congress and the BJP have congratulated themselves for a law that is hollow. It makes promises of substantial outlays but without adequate provision of funds. It focuses on grains and does not adequately consider high prices of protein-rich foods, such as pulses, that people need for health and nutrition.

Finally, on the Women’s Reservation Bill, both national parties make loud noises and cry themselves hoarse about women’s rights and access to political power, but act contrarily to their so-called commitments. Only eight per cent of the BJP’s Lok Sabha election candidates are women, and only 14 per cent of the Congress’ are.

On the other hand, I’m proud to say 27 per cent of Trinamool Congress candidates are women. Many of them are contesting in strong constituencies the party is likely to win. We haven’t sent our female nominees to weak seats just to make up the numbers.

Is any of this being discussed? No. Instead the focus is on some minor former official writing a book, a politician’s marital status, what a high-profile candidate’s sister said... I rest my case.

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

April 14, 2014

On the Road before E Day

Day 13: Why AAP is missing in many States

I have often been asked why the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has not been successful in West Bengal. My argument is AAP has got traction in primarily those areas where the Congress and the BJP are the only contenders and where voters are tired and cynical of both options. Delhi is a very good example. In the capital, and in neighbouring urban areas in Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh – and from what I hear Himachal Pradesh and pockets of Punjab – AAP has got a response due to fatigue with the two national parties.

That aside, in the northern, Hindi-speaking states, AAP has had a language advantage, most of its leadership being conversant in Hindi. It has also found great support from sections of the national media, which has an influence in the national capital regional and its periphery. One consequence of this is the large number of former journalists – three of seven in the Lok Sabha seats of Delhi alone – who have signed up as AAP candidates.

These factors are tested as one moves further from Delhi. In states where regional parties and leaders are satisfying the developmental urges and political sentiments of people, AAP will find it difficult to break in. There is the additional problem of language. Arvind Kejriwal and his lieutenants cannot possibly be evocative communicators in Bengali or Odiya or Telugu.

Never a strong force in Kolkata, AAP has now almost disappeared. A few weeks ago, my old friend Mudar Patherya joined AAP. A cricket writer of exceptional ability, Mudar later became a financial services professional. As a citizen of Kolkata, he is well-liked, has friends in several political parties and does a lot for civic consciousness. I have known him for three decades now, and have long felt he is the sort of person who should be in politics.

I was disappointed when I read in the newspapers that Mudar had become a member of AAP and had agreed to stand from the Kolkata (South) constituency. I didn’t call to congratulate him but neither did I send him a message to rethink. It was his decision and I respected that.

Recently, Mudar announced he was standing down as candidate and leaving AAP. The honeymoon was over. I phoned him and asked him what had happened. He said he was unhappy that there was little programmatic clarity and support from AAP in Delhi. “I was working with eight campaign volunteers,” he told me, “five of whom were from my family. The pressure was beginning to take a toll on my health.”

Gradually it dawned on Mudar that AAP was a non-starter. For his sake, I’m glad he found out sooner rather than later. For Bengal’s sake, I hope he – and others like him – gravitate towards mainstream and not maverick politics.

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

April 13, 2014

On the Road before E Day

Day 12: My four predictions for May 16

Sunday found me in a playful mood and I decided to attempt some predictions for the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Of course, I’m using the word 'predictions' in the sense of political assessments. If you want a prognosis on the basis of stellar movements, please visit the nearby roadside astrologer, and consult his parrot!

I’ll venture to make four predictions. The first concerns the BJP, which is clearly going to be the single-largest party. It is confident of a double century, dreaming of a higher score – but will probably end up disappointed. The party is not going to win anything in West Bengal, not even Darjeeling, on which it is setting so much store. In Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the BJP is near absent, despite the hype and hoopla. This means it will win enough seats to fit its Lok Sabha MPs into an Airbus A320. That plane has a cabin capacity of 180.

Next comes the Congress, facing its worst moment in history. I suspect it will have enough MPs to pack into an Indian Railways train compartment. The capacity here would be 72 passengers.

Third, the Trinamool Congress, the AIADMK and the Biju Janata Dal will be comfortable winners in their states and will each find ample seating room for their MPs in a bus. Perhaps we can add the YSR Congress in Seemandhra to this list. Its leader, Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy, has been scrupulous to his promise and remained equidistant from the Congress and the BJP. He has not made the same mistake as N. Chandrababu Naidu and the Telugu Desam.

A slightly smaller bus, or a mini-bus in Kolkata parlance, should do for the MPs of Mayawati’s BSP, which is giving the BJP a strong fight in Uttar Pradesh. As for the Aam Aadmi Party, maybe it will have MPs to fill the backseat of an auto-rickshaw.

So what are we left with? A plane that’s all dressed up but lacks the fuel – the incremental seats and partners – to take off and get somewhere. A lone train compartment in the middle of nowhere, with the rail tracks yanked off and no engine in sight anyway. Thankfully we have lots of buses, representing the transport mechanism – and the aspirations – of the common Indian. After May 16, these buses – and these parties – will get India to its destination.

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

April 12, 2014

On the Road before E Day

Day 11: Junket journalists

Long-drawn election campaigns can be gruelling and can tell the real stars from the amateurs, the truly big politician, with a lion’s heart and an iron constitution, from the poseur. They can also expose the hollowness of some media commentators and talking heads.

This past week, I encountered one such person on a television programme. He sauntered into the outdoor venue, and while the others – all politicians – waited patiently, sipping cups of tea or in one case a diet cola, our man helped himself to three quick glasses of whisky. Then, as soon as the cameras were on, he took off. Mamata Banerjee was an embarrassment to Bengal, he said. The CPI(M) was also an embarrassment. The BJP, under Modi or otherwise, was a national embarrassment. The Congress, under the Gandhi family, was a national embarrassment as well.

In other words, as he digested his beverage of choice, he concluded India was in a mess, these elections were not worth it, and the country may as well as go to the dogs. Ultimately, the bile and cynicism was directed at the voter and citizen.

I was livid. First, I was angry because of the insulting words used for Mamatadi. Frankly, though, that was not the only reason for my anger. Commentators and media-persons are given a platform – television or print – to add to the weight of public discourse, to analyse and assess election trends, to smell the grain from the dust, to help voters make an informed choice.

Parachute journalism, fly in-fly out commentary – where the so-called commentator makes occasional visits to Bengal, or seasonal visits to India, and comes to instant and lazy judgements based on pre-conceived notions and old biases – insults this process. It tarnishes those journalists who actually travel to the ground or work hard on their assessments, and back up their opinions and political preferences with logic, whether one agrees or disagrees with the logic.

Sadly, there are too many people in the media – and the whisky-drinking fellow I found myself with the other day falls in that category – who haven’t outgrown college or even childhood and are perennially chasing transient glibness. Not only do they refuse to age gracefully, they refuse to mature. The result is silly rhetoric floating around as meaningful analysis. Does this fool anyone? The media needs to ask itself.

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

April 10, 2014

On the Road before E Day

Day 10: 360° Communication in Politics

Politics is an impulsive, emotional phenomenon – but elections are planned and cautious campaigns. At the heart of an election is communication. A party has to communicate internally and externally, to opponents and workers, to loyal voters and fence-sitting voters, to the media and to the general public. These groups are all very different and hence the communication strategy not just varies but changes and gains or loses intensity over time.

At the Trinamool Congress, we refer to this as a ‘360° of Communication’ approach. We often speak of an election campaign resembling a pie, with 12 arcs of communication: 360° split into individual segments of 30° each. These 12 arcs resemble not just different tasks and target groups, but also a chronology. They begin with the revision and study of the electoral rolls and end with the day of polling, and exhorting and bringing voters out of their homes to actually vote.

What are the 10 arcs in between? They range from kormi (worker) sabhas that are in-house huddles (to borrow a term from football or cricket) before the Trinamool team goes into the field. Then come wall paintings, which as I explained in an earlier blog are taken very seriously in West Bengal and seen as almost an art form. Closely behind are the hoardings, the flex boards that highlight our party and its message.

Now the campaign hits the ground. Arc five comprises road shows as the party and its key functionaries and workers alike take to the streets, in processions and marches. Gradually, this devolves into a more focused door to door campaign, moving from the main road to the narrow by-lanes and individual dwellings and hutments. Finally, the chairperson – Mamata Banerjee – addresses meetings, growing from smaller meetings (arc seven) to massive, show-stopper public meetings (arc eight).

Simultaneously and complementarily, there is communication through several media platforms. This takes care of three arcs and includes:

Mass media
Direct media
Social media

Trinamool is not unique in this. Many other parties adopt very similar strategies if not near identical mechanisms. Where we stand out, I believe, is in recognising and institutionalising the ‘360° of Communication’ approach and hardwiring it into our systems. This has made it easier for us to categorise our duties, and to undertake a job specialisation exercise within our human resources, whether workers or spokespersons, wall-painting artistes and wordsmiths, or logistical planners.

In short, it has made Trinamool an effective and efficient machine, and made election campaigns that much more methodical.

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

April 05, 2014

On the Road before E Day

Day 9: Missing manifestos and broken promises

The Trinamool Congress prides itself on its lean, flat management structure and efficiency in decision making. This was evident when the dates of the Lok Sabha elections were announced. Within 48 hours, we had released names of our candidates, the homework having been done days in advance.

Finalising names so quickly was not just an ego trip. It made electoral sense because it gave individual candidates that much more time to travel to their constituencies, familiarise themselves with their voters and get down to hard campaigning. Mamata Banerjee feels political parties owe this – this maximum possible period – to the voter.

In the same vein, Mamatadi has taught us to take manifestos seriously and not treat them as cursory documents that nobody reads. The latter attitude is reminiscent of some other major political parties, which fill their manifestos with hagiographic narratives and impracticable promises. In the 2011 assembly election, Trinamool had released both a manifesto as well as a vision document for West Bengal. This year, we released a national manifesto as well as a state-specific manifesto for the voters of West Bengal. As is apparent, the focus of the two documents is different.

We like to think of ourselves as a rational, scientific party but let me confess to the one Trinamool superstition – it concerns the venue where we release the manifesto. We do this not at Trinamool Bhawan, our national headquarters in east Kolkata, but at Mamatadi’s humble home in Kalighat, south Kolkata. We gather in the one room that has been designated her office space. This is where it all started, and this is where we go back to for inspiration.

This year we released the national manifesto there and also put it up on our website. The manifesto was not verbose and kept simple, presented in point form. Click here to view. Do read it and send feedback.

The West Bengal specific manifesto was released separately. It was a report of what the state government had achieved since coming to office in 2011 and what was in store. The Lok Sabha polls are a sort of mid-term assessment for the Trinamool government and the state manifesto is the report card we have presented the people.

On Sunday, April 6, (unless the T20 final tempts me to do otherwise) I am going to participate in a television discussion on manifestos. I’m afraid I won’t be able to speak about the BJP manifesto because I haven’t been able to read it. It hasn’t even been released. This is absolutely shocking and reflects poorly on the BJP. I wish its army of social media warriors, who specialise in rapid-fire 140-character attacks, could be put to better use to write a manifesto by a reasonable deadline.

The Congress manifesto is before me as I write this. It appears to be a dying declaration, essentially saying: ‘This is what we haven’t done over the past 10 years, but why don’t you give us another five years nevertheless…’ No wonder people are junking the Congress manifesto, as they are the party that has had the temerity to release it.

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

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

April 01, 2014

On the Road before E Day

Day 7: TMC set for its best ever show in North Bengal

One of the reasons the Trinamool Congress is confident of its best-ever showing in north Bengal in the coming Lok Sabha elections is the strong development record of the state government and the justice and fairness shown to the region. This was apparent as soon as Mamata Banerjee became the chief minister in 2011, when she set up a separate and full-fledged Department for North Bengal Development. In February this year, Uttar Kanya – the mini state secretariat in north Bengal – was inaugurated within 18 months of a decision being taken.

In this manner, key grievances of the people of north Bengal, pending for decades, were sorted out very quickly. What helped was personal presence – Mamata Banerjee has visited north Bengal 26 times since becoming chief minister. In contrast, the CPI(M) chief ministers had a very poor record and were not accessible to common citizens of the region. It was thanks to such close interaction that Mamatadi realised the need to set up the Dooars Task Force, within the broader ambit of the North Bengal Development Department. She has really gone down to the grassroots.

North Bengal has three principal complaints: distance from state institutions, which are located in Kolkata and south Bengal, jobs and education. How has the Trinamool government sought to address these?

Begin with distance from the big institutions of the state. Construction of the Circuit Bench of Kolkata High Court at Jalpaiguri is in its final phase. Next, all district hospitals in north Bengal are being seriously refurbished. With increased number of beds, facilities like SNSU and SNCU, MRI facilities, fair price medicine and diagnostic centres, the hospitals are being raised to the status of multi-super specialty hospitals. Patients who are very ill will no longer need to make the arduous journey to the other end of the state.

Darjeeling and Kurseong, among other places in north Bengal, have a strong network of schools, but higher education has been a problem. The Trinamool government has set up seven new government colleges in the region. A branch campus of the North Bengal University is being built in Jalpaiguri. Cooch Behar is host to a new university named after Panchanan Barma, the visionary Rajbanshi leader from the early 20th century.

Finally, there is the quest and for a better economy and for jobs in north Bengal, a hope that is still alive in the hills despite the neglect under the CPI(M). Mamatadi is focusing on tourism. The Lamahata Home Tourism facility is now functional. The Gazaldoba Tourist Hub was inaugurated about six months ago.

The West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation has envisaged and begun work on a mega tourism hub in Banarhat, Jalpaiguri. It will incorporate a convention centre, five and three star resorts, a day centre for picnics, an amusement park, a budget resort, a crafts village, a hospitality management training institute and a youth hostel. When completed it will be a flagship tourism facility in not just north Bengal but in the entire east and northeast of India. It will complement the film city and film school coming up in Dabgram-Fulbari.

By all accounts, this is an impressive record for a government that has completed not even three years in office. As I end my trip to north Bengal and make my way to the plains, the Trinamool government's deep and honest engagement with the region leaves me with a sense of satisfaction. It makes me believe the voters of north Bengal will appreciate the effort and strengthen the Trinamool Congress.

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