A prominent and senior Congress leader from West Bengal until 2019, joined the Trinamool Congress soon after the Lok Sabha elections at a time when leaders in Bengal were making a beeline for the BJP. Professor Om Prakash Mishra, now a member of the TMC’s core committee and senior spokesperson of the party spoke to The Sunday Guardian about the “cold war” between the Congress and the TMC. Professor Mishra also talked of Mamata Banerjee as a “courageous” leader who has embarked on a journey to take on the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Excerpts:
Q: The popular perception is that the Trinamool Congress is trying to take over the Opposition space leaving behind the Congress. Is this true?
A: There is no one Opposition party. There are Opposition parties. Trinamool is trying to expand its footprint. Similarly, Congress or Samajwadi Party or NCP can do so. The very definition of a political party encapsulates expansion. We are not trying to replace or substitute the Congress. We are trying to oppose the BJP’s misrule and must be ready to follow through with this objective by all necessary means and appropriate strategy. Congress is within its right to strengthen its organisation and sharpen its strategy. The issue is whether Congress is doing this or ceding political space.
Q: Will it actually be possible to form a “United Opposition” without taking the Congress on board?
A: People are getting united in their yearning for a change in the governance and leadership structure in the country. Price-rise, rising unemployment, wrong economic policies, communal propaganda, mismanagement of the Covid pandemic have become central issues for the people. Everywhere, BJP’s political slide is manifest. We all need to ensure that the BJP is divested of its present commanding role in the various states and at the Centre. Congress can decide whether to join forces with non-BJP parties or compete with them. In Bengal, Congress fought us, but failed to win a single seat in the Assembly. In Tripura, within less than three years, Congress’ vote share declined from about 25% to 2%. In Uttar Pradesh, they are fighting the BJP as well as the SP. In Punjab they would be fighting AAP as well. As such, even while there is an imperative of cooperation, there is competition amongst the parties. No political party represents the entirety of the political landscape of India. Political cooperation is a two-way street. Sooner Congress realises this, it is better.
Q: You were a prominent Congress leader in Bengal for a very long time, where do you think the Congress is lacking to project itself as a strong Opposition party?
A: It may not be appropriate for me to advice the Congress. My letter of resignation after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections articulated almost everything that Congress needed to do, at least in West Bengal. They rejected my views and understanding of the best way forward to counter the BJP. Today they are trying to walk the path I said they need to take. On certain structural issues, I had met with Shri Rahul Gandhi and suggested a few necessary steps. Even though he agreed, the leadership did not follow through. Delays and procrastination over important decisions have been a bane of the Congress Party. In future terms, the Congress leadership may like to understand the political-geography and electoral landscape of the country better, be accommodative of interests and aspirations of regional political parties and try to build bridges of cooperation. All of us need to bear in mind that arrogance is not an appropriate political currency.
Q: Since the TMC has criticised the BJP and has called BJP leaders bohiragato (outsider) in the last elections, don’t you think that the TMC will face similar challenges when asking for votes outside of Bengal?
A: BJP has been electorally insignificant in Bengal, even though they have been in existence in Bengal for the last four decades. The artificial and inorganic rise of the BJP in West Bengal in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections was facilitated by large scale vote transfer to BJP from the CPM and a section of Congress, motivated by a strong anathema to the TMC. Buoyed by their “success”, BJP attempted to run down Bengal, its culture and tradition and the social solidarity of the people of Bengal. They ran a venomous and hate-filled campaign, pouring obscene amounts of money into their campaign to capture Bengal. The central leadership of the BJP rode roughshod over the local leadership and local issues in an unprecedented centralised campaign of money, muscle and misinformation. Political narrative weaved by the BJP’s leadership from outside Bengal was rightly seen as an attempt to belittle Bengal and mock at its liberal secular tradition. “Bohiragato’” was not about individuals and leaders but the ideology they sought to import and impose on Bengal. People irrespective of the language they speak, religion they follow and states from where they originally hail from are peacefully residing in Bengal. Nobody is a “bohiragato” as long as they are respectful of Bengal’s culture and tradition. Despite the mischief and misrepresentation of TMC”s articulation on this issue, we shall have no difficulty in presenting our views and vision to the different states and regions of the country.
Q: How is the TMC transitioning from being “a party of Bengal” to making itself appealing nationally?
A: BJP’s resounding defeat in Bengal by the TMC is the standard reference point in any discussion on the need and possibility of defeating BJP in different states and in 2024. The uncompromising and courageous leadership of Mamata Banerjee is considered as pivotal and central to the policy and strategy to unseat BJP from the centre. We have started making forays into different states to challenge BJP. We have also appealed for Opposition unity whenever possible and wherever necessary. Record of West Bengal in different parameters of development, social inclusion and welfare is also noteworthy. We are not in any competition with any other political parties except BJP.
Q: There have been reports about unhappiness between a section of TMC leaders and Prashant Kishor. What is the truth in this?
A: I am not privy to any such thing and I am not in a position to respond to this query.
Q: Political observers believe that Mamata Banerjee and TMC, under the guidance of PK, are taking ambitious steps. What do you have to say on this?
A: Mamata Banerjee is one of the most popular political leaders in India. She has led TMC to victory three times in West Bengal. Elected to the Lok Sabha 7 times, she has served the Council of Ministers in Government of India under four different Union Governments. It is naive to think that either she needs “guidance” or is “guided”. Her leadership of public policy and public administration has received worldwide acclaim. She has always been courageous and it is no wonder that she would be bold in her plans and projects, whether in governance of West Bengal, political expansion of TMC or in her plans for a non-BJP government at the Centre.
Q: The BJP is facing some major internal issues in Bengal. Many from the BJP are willing to join the TMC, but will the TMC take these leaders?
A: BJP is in complete disarray in Bengal. Infighting is at its peak. Leadership has vanished. Within seven months, they have lost almost 50% of the vote share they had in April. Between the Assembly elections in April through the seven byelections in October and to the Kolkata Corporation elections in December, BJP has lost almost 50% vote share. Many of their MLAs and leaders have joined us. There is not much enthusiasm in the TMC to take people from BJP. Depending on the leader and also the blocks and districts, exceptions have been made and joining completed. The process will continue.
Q: BJP and the Governor of Bengal are talking about the “breakdown of constitutional machinery” in Bengal and that of the “rule of the ruler” and not the “rule of law”. What do you have to say about this?
A: The Governor is the cry-baby, all the time on a collision course with the state government. He cannot reconcile to the grand defeat his party of choice, BJP, has suffered. BJP is desperate to keep its flock together. Voters have started deserting them. It is difficult for them to find nominees to contest polls. The BJP story in Bengal was built up on vote transfer from CPM. The possibility of some of that vote returning to the CPM would leave BJP high and dry. CPM may recover gradually, in an uninspiring and slow growth. All this leaves TMC as the central pole of Bengal which has 42 Lok Sabha seats, more than double of say Delhi and Punjab combined.