On May 14, right after addressing a high-octane election rally in the South Kolkata Lok Sabha constituency, Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee sat down for a brief interview with The Wire’s founding editor Siddharth Varadarajan and its Calcutta-based contributor Himadri Ghosh.
The interview touched upon her strident criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the evident inroads the BJP has made in West Bengal, her own government’s attitude towards criticism and satire, as seen in the recent arrest of a young BJP activist for posting a meme of the chief minister, prospects for an opposition front, and the charge against the Trinamool of using violence in this election.
Siddharth Varadarajan: Hello and welcome to this very special interview at The Wire. We are at Bihala-Chaurastha in Kolkata. We have just finished listening to Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, Trinamool Congress Leader and of course one of the key faces in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
We are very lucky to have her join us for a short interview – on her criticism of Narendra Modi, and of course the possible outcomes of the election on the 23rd.
Madame Chief Minister, thank you very much for giving this interview to The Wire.
Mamata Banerjee: First, let me thank you. The Wire is the only institution – you are really very brave and bold. When all media, maximum, 99.9%, are totally purchased, I don’t know how you have got the strength. You are fighting the battle. I have nothing to give you but my solidarity.
SV: Well, the 2019 election, Narendra Modi has been the face, the voice, the name that has dominated the campaign. And among the opposition leaders, you have been perhaps the most forthright in directly challenging him. I heard your speech today. Very very strong, some would say harsh, language against him, against Amit Shah, and you say no matter what comes, no matter what happens, no matter who becomes prime minister, Narendra Modi must go. Why do you believe that this one person’s ouster is so crucial to this election, and to the political future of India?
MB: He’s not only a fascist, he’s an egoist, he’s very proudy, adamant. Political vendetta – he has political vendetta you cannot imagine. I used some harsh words today. But they are not harsh words. They are politically strong, bold words. Because, you know, we respect our great son of the soil, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, very much. We are celebrating 200 years this year. But the goons, the BJP goons from the Amit Shah rally, they have totally destroyed Vidyasagar’s statue. We know that he is the man who gave women education, who gave education to all the children. And now they have broken the Swami Vivekananda statue also. They have fired the … of Vidyasagar College also. I am going there after that. I am telling you, I am very upset.
These type of people, they must go from this country. They must go from politics. The politician should know what is politics. Politics means sacrifice. Politics means dedication, determination, devotion. Politics means you must dedicate yourself for the country, for the motherland, for the people. But if you think politics means goondaism, hooliganism, fair enough. What has Modi done in five years? He’s sold his bullet [sic] to everybody, from journalists to Amartya Sen to Gauri Lankesh. There are so many minorities, so many Scheduled Castes, police officers, whoever has said anything against him, his political vendetta has been to kill them. Do you think it is proper? I may accept some ideology, may not accept some ideology, but in a democracy, everybody has the right to speak. How is he behaving? Do you know what he said against me? You cannot imagine the language.
SV: Does it worry you that in West Bengal, in a very short duration of time, the BJP has emerged as your principal challenger? The Left does not seem to be in the race.
MB: Not at all, somebody will be the opposition. In a democratic setup, somebody will be ruling party, somebody will be opposition. I may be number one, but they may be number two, three or four. It is the CPM’s business, that CPM’s goons, they are joining the BJP, because the BJP is giving … to them also. So it is their matter, it is not our matter. I don’t mind who will come as the second person. I will certainly try that I must be first.
SV: But does it worry you that the BJP has made inroads in the way that it has?
MB: Not at all, we want a political fight. Why will they (open) fire? Why will they go for communal riots? Why they will divide Indians like this? Hindu-Muslim, Bengali and non-Bengali, Dalit and Christian, why are they dividing our country like this? We always abide by our constitution. Our constitution is secular, Ambedkar’s constitution. We respect everyone, every state, every individual. But Narendra Modi will finish the country. That’s why.
SV: One of the issues you raised is intolerance of criticism, a charge that can also be levelled against your government. The case of Priyanka Sharma, the young woman who was arrested, for a satirical image of you. Surely this is not something which –
MB: No, please, that is not correct. Have you seen the Supreme Court verdict today?
SV: Yes, yes, I have.
MB: They say she has to apologise
SV: Well, they’ve ordered her release!
MB: No, no, no, please. It is local people. The police, they feel something. The Supreme Court also admitted that. It says she has to apologise. What does that mean?
SV: No, but should people –
MB: Lakhs of people are doing this. This is why I am telling you, BJP in the name of fakebook, it is sponsored. It is hatred campaign, they are doing. I can criticise you. There must be some limit.
SV: Right, but is police action the answer?
MB: I don’t know. Police is not with me right now. They are under Election Commission now. They are not talking to me regarding… and I don’t know this also, because I have been busy campaigning. When I said release her, yesterday, they said court is not functioning… So I said, then I cannot say… see if the rules permit. I am not like this.
SV: Last year, there was talk of a mahagathbandhan at a national level. You yourself presided over this great rally, this huge rally in Kolkata, where leaders came from all over the country. But one year later, we see that those dreams did not materialise, even in Bengal, you haven’t managed to have an alliance with the Congress.
MB: No, I said that we will fight alone, Bengal, from the beginning. Sometimes, the CPM and Congress work together, and sometimes the CPM, Congress and BJP work together. That is their colourful combination. So I said, Bengal, no problem. But wherever you have the alliance, you do it. So at least 40% we have done.
SV: Does the lack of a tight pre-poll alliance across the country worry you? You once said that there should be one candidate against the BJP everywhere. That didn’t happen.
MB: That was the formula, we would have been happy with that. But at least 40% is also OK. But now I am not going to criticise anything. Because we want Modi should go, and all the parties will work together.
SV: In the event that the BJP falls short by a significant number, and decides they want some other candidate and not Mr. Modi, how will you–
MB: We will not support the BJP.
SV: Under any circumstances?
SV: And if the choice is between a non-Congress, non-BJP coalition government, which perhaps the Congress supports from the outside, versus the Trinamool supporting –
MB: I am just saying that all parties must work together. I am not saying right nowwhat will be the policy, what will be the system, that depends on the mechanism. On the basis of the common minimum agenda program, let the results come, then we will sit together. And we are the BJP is not coming. The arithmetic says that. So all the parties will sit together, and whatever the decision will be there, collectively we will take that decision.
SV: You have been in touch with KCR, with Jagan and other leaders. What is your assessment of how clearly they look at Narendra Modi? Do they share your view that Modi must go, or do they have some other perspective?
MB: I cannot say about others because it is their prerogative.
MB: But everybody wants that the regional front must be strong, and all regional parties must work together, that is their feeling I can tell you.
SV: You have been in touch with Mr. Stalin, he is part of the UPA. Do you think–
MB: We maintain good relations. Congress, if they want to work with us, what is the problem? Let us work together. I have no problem.
SV: In hindsight…
MB: There are some political parties they have some problem… but let us work together, I think it will be better.
SV: Coming back to the growth of the BJP, in hindsight…
MB: It is not growth. It is not growth at all. Why are people not raising the issue? They are spending crores of money. For one vote, they are giving 5000 rupees, for one particular vote. Can you imagine how many crores of money is involved? I will request, I have appealed to the Election Commission. There must be some ceiling. They have the guidelines, they have the mechanism. How much the BJP is spending money, why is the Election Commission not taking action?
Himadri Ghosh: Madam, we have seen for some time, people from the CPM are now marching under the BJP flag. Who do you blame for this?
MB: I am telling you, this is not growth. This is absolutely not growth. This happens when the BJP is in power in the centre. They use the situation. There, through agencies they work, so there is some growth. If the BJP is not in power, then this growth will die in a second. It is temporary.
SV: Do you feel, in hindsight, that walking into the NRC Assam issue, when it did not directly concern West Bengal, may have been a tactical blunder, because it allowed the BJP to make this a big issue in this election in Bengal itself?
MB: I think people are not supporting this NRC issue, Bengal also not supporting.
SV: But it has given the BJP some kind of a boost here.
MB: No, no, no, no one has agreed to that.
HG: Very lately you raised a concern about the EVM issue. Is that a concern now? That EVMs are malfunctioning.
MB: This tampering matter has been on our minds since the beginning. We have given a letter, we went to the Supreme Court also, all the political parties. We tried our best. Let us hope for better things..
HG: But what if the votes go in the favour of the BJP, will you do anything?
MB: We have every record with us. What can we do? All we can do is write letters. We can go to the Supreme Court, for justice. We can go to the Election Commission, for justice. We have tried everything. All the record is with us.
SV: One of the issues that all parties at the ground level have raised as an accusation against Trinamool is that there is a lot of violence on the ground, often involving Trinamool cadre, Trinamool leaders.
MB: That is absolutely wrong. Who is saying all this?
SV: Well, during the Panchayat elections, candidates could not file nominations.
MB: This is absolutely the wrong conception. I am telling you. Please see the truth first. Tripura, 98% uncontested, the BJP did not allow others to file nominations. UP, 78%. Bengal, 75%. There is an election! After that, Supreme Court gave us the clearances, did you know that? Why are you raising this? This is absolutely wrong.
SV: But Arjun Singh in Barrackpore getting beaten up—
MB: He’s a goon. Don’t ask me about Arjun Singh.
HG: When Arjun Singh, Nishit Pramanik, and all these people—
MB: All goons! Please see the CBI letter. Don’t ask me about these names.
HG: But they are ex-TMC.
MB: So what? We expelled them from the party (x3). If you ask about these names, I will not sit with you. I am sorry. Please don’t take briefing from anywhere. Everybody has some limit. If you want to ask these questions, I will send my block president, they will give a reply.
HG: I am not talking about the Panchayat polls…
MB: You asked me please. Please, allow me to reply. Don’t go for your TRP rating, because this time I can give you an answer, next time I cannot sit with you, Please see your limitations, please also see my limitations. When you raise an allegation, you have to listen to the reply also. 98% of people are not allowed in Tripura. I am telling you, officially, the BJP did not allow. UP, not allowed. Rajasthan, not allowed. Sikkim, not allowed. Only in Bengal did we allow the people to go for elections, to contest the elections. 75% contested the elections, and we won, and that’s why the Supreme Court gave us the clear mandate. You must know it. Without asking from somebody’s mouth. If you ask, you must know the truth. They went to Supreme Court, they cleared, that nothing is there..
HG: I want to ask about the Lok Sabha. Congress MP from Behrampore is running on the street, is it showing a good image of the election?
MB: Don’t ask me anything, I am not running the elections. It is being done by the central government. We are in the dark. As chief minister, I do not know anything. Parallel government is going on. Do you know that a parallel government is going on? The central forces and Modi are running a parallel government in West Bengal. I do not know anything about my state. They do not ask me anything. It is not that we are doing. If the state government had been trusted, nothing would have happened.
HG: On the Election Commission, if any other party says anything, they have been booked and stopped from canvassing. They have been banned from campaigning, But when it comes to Modi or Amit Shah, the EC has been biased.
SV: Are you worried about the impartiality and the role of the Election Commission?
MB: I can use the proverb that speech is silver, but silence is golden.
SV: Right, well, we will take that as a telling comment. Thank you for joining us for this interview.
MB: Thank you.