“The only genuine face of democratic secularism in the state of West Bengal currently is that of Mamata Banerjee,” says Prof. Om Prakash Mishra
In the past four decades, after it was decimated by the Communists in the West Bengal Assembly Elections of 1977, the Congress Party nurtured little hope of ever returning to its former glory in the state. In spite of the steady decline, a few staunch loyalists held on, refusing to abandon the proverbial sinking ship. Among them was party strongman Professor Om Prakash Mishra, Head of the Department of International Relations at Calcutta’s Jadavpur University who had formerly, from 2004 to 2006, served as member of the National Security Advisory Board to the Prime Minister of India. Therefore, when the diehard Congress supporter announced last month that he was finally leaving the party to join Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Party, which is currently ruling West Bengal, it raised a flood of questions. In an interview to Cuckoo News editor Dola Mitra, Dr Mishra, who has already been inducted into the Trinamool Core Committee, the party’s main decision-making body, explains why….while also commenting on other significant political developments in the state and the country, all from his fresh vantage point.
Q: Your name was once synonymous with the Congress Party in West Bengal. What happened for you to take the decision to leave suddenly?
A: Actually, it was not sudden at all. I had been contemplating this move ever since I realized that the Bengal Congress was doing virtually nothing to try to prevent the BJP from making inroads into West Bengal. In fact, if anything, the Congress, along with the Left forces, deliberately broke off their seat-sharing arrangement so as to help BJP to do well in this state. I had argued and protested but the party overlooked my suggestions and objections. Eventually, on July 4, 2019, I resigned from my post as Vice President of the party, which did not accept it until two months later, that is, on September, 3, 2019. Since then I have severed all my association with the Congress and joined Trinamool Congress.
Q: What were the suggestions that you made and what were your objections?
A: It was my idea that the Congress and the Left parties join hands to fight the West Bengal Assembly Elections together in 2016. It was implemented then. I had strongly advocated that they do the same for the Parliamentary Elections held this year. I had submitted a concrete and doable plan of action in June 2018 but the state Congress dragged its feet and the Left too did not work towards it. When the Parliamentary Election results were declared in May this year and we witnessed an unprecedented gain for the BJP (which shot up from two seats in the Parliamentary Elections of 2014 to 18 this year) I had no doubt in my mind that the Congress and the Left parties let them win. BJP’s vote share went up from 10.5 percent in the 2016 Assembly Elections to as high as 40.3 percent this year. The Left was decimated, with almost 70 per cent of its vote transferred to BJP. Congress lost about 55 per cent votes compared to 2016.
Q: But wasn’t the Congress-Left vote-sharing arrangement of 2016 considered a failed strategy because it could not stand up to the Trinamool?
A: On the contrary, the Congress and Left vote-sharing during the Assembly Elections of 2016 was a success because it prevented the BJP from gaining the anti-Trinamool votes. In the 2014 Parliamentary Elections, the BJP’s vote-share in West Bengal had soared to 17.2 percent from 6 percent in 2009. But because of the Congress and Left vote-sharing arrangement in the 2016 Assembly Elections, it crashed to 10.5 percent that year. My point is that if the Congress and the Left really wanted to thwart the aggressive march-forward of the BJP in West Bengal, wouldn’t they want to repeat the strategy which has worked before? Why didn’t they do that this time? This was a deliberate move to strengthen BJP.
Q: Why would the Congress and the Left want to strengthen the BJP?
A: In order to weaken the TMC.
Q: In fact, in West Bengal, the chief goal of the Congress and the Left was to defeat the Trinamool in 2016, wasn’t it?
A: It must be remembered, that for the Congress and the Left the bigger political rival, ideologically-speaking, is the BJP. With the Trinamool, these parties do share a common goal which is the “secular” agenda. It is more important to keep communal forces at bay.
Q: But as a Congress leader you had, in the past, been critical of the policies of the Trinamool government.
A: Yes, of course. But such “opposition” was always within the framework of the political structure of our democratic system. When the Congress and Trinamool principally disagree on issues, obviously the members of each party speak in one voice. But the fundamental ideologies of the two parties do not have discrepancies that run deep. They are both democratic, secular parties. Don’t forget that before Mamata Banerjee founded Trinamool, she was a leader of the Congress Party.
Q: It has often been pointed out that Trinamool and BJP had also worked together when, in 1999, Mamata Banerjee joined the BJP-led NDA government.
A: In politics, dynamics change as do equations. Yes, she did join the NDA, had briefly returned to an alliance with the Congress in 2001 and then rejoined the NDA. Her endeavor at that time was to ally with those with whom she could combat Left misrule in West Bengal. When she was in the NDA she had already left the Congress and had formed Trinamool and wanted her party to become the alternative. After her last association with the NDA, however, she has not returned to any BJP-led NDA front. She did join the Congress-led UPA though. The BJP’s communal characteristics have manifested themselves gradually and increasingly. Mamata Banerjee as chief minister of West Bengal has been fighting to ensure that communalism and politics of division don’t gain ground in her state. All democratic and secular forces should come together to support her in this.
Q: Do you attribute the BJP’s spectacular gain in West Bengal in the Parliamentary Elections this year only to the absence of vote-sharing between Congress and the Left? Don’t you think that anti-incumbency and factors like consolidating the majority Hindu vote by the BJP have also played a part?
A: Bengal has traditionally been a secular state with large populations of different religions and castes living harmoniously. The introduction of caste or religious politics which tend to divide can have only a limited impact. Parties which gain from anti-incumbency in a state like West Bengal are or have been necessarily democratic, secular parties. The Congress was replaced by the Left Front and the Left Front was replaced by Trinamool, each of which fits this description. And with the Congress and the Left leaving the field open for a BJP entry, the only genuine face of democratic secularism in the state currently is that of Mamata Banerjee.
Q: It has been a month since you joined Trinamool. What has it been like working with Didi? (as Mamata Banerjee is popularly called).
A: I have known Mamata Banerjee since 1985, when she was elected to the Lok Sabha. I was at that time doing research at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and was a leader of NSUI (National Students’ Union of India) in Delhi. We did work together briefly in Delhi and later on in Kolkata, up until the mid-1990s. I was the Congress Convener of the Bangla Bachao (Save Bengal) Front when Congress and Trinamool aligned to fight the 2001 elections together. In 2011, Congress and Trinamool had again contested the Assembly Elections together and though Mamata Banerjee’s party commanded absolute majority, Congress had been part of the government (though only briefly – between 2011 and 2012). As Congress Party General Secretary, I had handed over the letter of support to Mamata Banerjee for forming the government.
Now we shall be working together again and Trinamool, under her leadership, shall play a positive role in uniting political parties and citizens across the country in order to take on the BJP. She has entrusted me with a great deal of responsibility, especially in the educational sphere and I have been made a Member of the Core Committee of the Party, which is the highest decision-making body.
Q: Has life changed for you at all since when you were in the Congress?
A: Oh, yes! Very much so….politically! The big difference is that in the Congress I was underutilized. Interestingly, when the Congress Party in West Bengal contested elections jointly with other political parties, I was never given a ticket. Only when Congress fought alone did I get to run for elections. In other words, there was no effort at providing a supportive environment for me. I have much to offer whether in terms of political experience or ideas on how to take the party forward, etc. But I was neither given my due in accordance with my capabilities, nor valued for my abilities.
Now I feel energized again. After all, Trinamool is a thriving party. Not just because it is in power but also because it is not complacent. It has a fight on its hand. We are politically taking on the BJP. The Congress in Bengal, on the other hand, has almost accepted that it does not have any prospects in the state in the foreseeable future. Though after all that (the conceding of space and votes to the BJP) the Congress, I understand, is once again contemplating joining hands with the Left.
Q: To take on her formidable foe (the BJP), Mamata Banerjee has roped in astute political strategist Prashant Kishore. How much do you think it will help her in the 2021 Assembly elections, which is expected to be a fight directly between Trinamool and BJP?
A: Prashant Kishore is a seasoned strategist and several of his plans, it seems, has already proved effective. “Didike bolo” (Tell Didi) is a highly successful campaign in which common citizens can pick up the phone and call up a helpline number to express their grievances or convey their messages for Mamata Banerjee. This unique strategy, together with a number of course corrections during the past few months, has galvanized the Trinamool. These reform strategies are certainly expected to yield positive results.
Q: The recent meeting between Mamata Banerjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has caused much speculation both in political circles as well as in the media. The electorate of West Bengal too is said to be somewhat confused by the show of camaraderie of the two leaders because they are used to more confrontational attitudes. Can you tell us the inside story of why they really met and what they really discussed?
A: It is as Mamata Banerjee explained before and after the meeting. The two leaders met to discuss a number of economic and administrative issues. These included a request for a speedy disbursement of financial dues owed by the Center to the state of West Bengal; a reminder that the state of West Bengal had applied for a change of name to “Bangla”, a discussion on the plans to inaugurate the largest coal block in West Bengal’s Birbhum district and so on.
Having said that, Trinamool is completely opposed to the politics and policies of the Central government and is committed to fighting the BJP politically on the ground. Mamata Banerjee has already declared her opposition to the conduction of any NRC (National Register of Citizens) exercise in the state. At the same time, and irrespective of these differences, government-to-government relations would continue as per the provisions in the country’s Constitution.
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