Kolkata: Among the five states that are going for elections this year, West Bengal has become the cynosure of all eyes. While the BJP is trying to make in-roads, the ruling Trinamool Congress is facing an anti-incumbency challenge to win a third term. The Left and Congress are in alliance with a few smaller parties to gain lost ground.
The state will go for polls in eight phases from March 27 to April 29. The battle lines are drawn and stakes are high, going by the events that transpired so far. Amidst the busy electioneering, The Wire caught up with TMC’s chief national spokesperson and Rajya Sabha member Derek O’Brien.
Just as he did in his quizzing days, he still holds a pack of cards in his hands with facts and figures printed on them. On being asked a question, he picks up the relevant card and backs his responses with data. Here are excerpts from the interview:
What, according to you, are the top three achievements of the Trinamool government
That’s a good question because it gives me an opportunity to talk about development and good governance. Top three, I would say, health, education and social welfare schemes, closely followed by infrastructure development. According to the Government of India’s data, we are Number One in MGNREGA, MSME, rural housing and rural roads. We are also the Number One in skill development and transparency and ease of doing business. In eradication of poverty too, Bengal is the Number One among the big states in recent years.
So there are a lot of things that have happened. A programme like Kanyashree (Bengal government’s flagship programme that incentivises education of girls, specifically from socio-economically disadvantaged families, through conditional cash transfers, and disincentivises marriage till the age of 18), for example.
It started before Beti Bachao Beti Padhao. Kanyashree budget is Rs 9,400 crore. For Beti Bachao this year, the budgetary allocation is zero. Kanyashree has touched 68 lakh lives. Beti Bachao is all advertisement, as the government has itself admitted. Similarly, Sasthya Sathee scheme also started a couple of years before Ayushman Bharat. The card is issued in the name of womenfolk. That’s a huge empowering step for them.
If you look at Kolkata urban areas, the open vats disappeared; the city is cleaner and greener. Recently, we became Number Three in the world for the adoption of electric buses. These are the things that don’t make the 9’o clock news.
So this is what makes you confident about the third term for Mamata Banerjee. How does this weigh against a natural anti-incumbency?
You’re absolutely justified in saying that there would be an anti-incumbency factor. But what makes us confident is that these schemes have touched people’s lives from the time somebody is born right up to the person’s death. (Derek is referring to the Bengal government’s Rs 2,000 cremation/burial allowance or people below the poverty line). So if in one household somebody got Kanyashree, in the next family somebody would have got Rupashree (one-time financial grant of Rs 25,000 for economically disadvantaged families at the time of their adult daughters’ marriage), in the next one Sabuj Sathee (cycles for students of Class IX to XII) so on and so forth. So this is the social outreach programme.
The other thing that makes us confident is the world’s biggest door-to-door initiative called Duare Sarkar (literally, the government at your doorstep) It shows us that we have the humility to accept we may not have delivered every service as promised, and so we are giving you this window to avail them.
The third factor that makes us very confident is the fact that our team has a captain, who is the chief minister. The other teams are headless. And the recent surveys show that Mamata Banerjee is the choice of 53 to 55% of the electorate as the next chief minister. That should make us confident.
I see that you haven’t yet mentioned the industry scenario. How many IT companies have come to Kolkata or Bengal in the last 10 years of Trinamool rule? This is important because investment in IT means jobs for the educated youth, and the government has publicised the annual business summits as one of its success stories. So it is important to understand what actually came out of those.
Once again, thank you for asking. Nobody asks these questions. All I am asked these days is why did A, B or C leave?
So, to come back to your question, between April 2020 and January 2021, banks in Bengal lent Rs 63,000 crore to MSMEs with state government’s support. As per the central government’s capital-labour ratio, that amounts to 23 lakh jobs.
We have had 40% reduction in unemployment during the pandemic. IT employment has gone up 133% from 2011 to 2020. IT exports in the same period went up by 179%. From 490 IT companies in Bengal in 2011, now we have 1,500 in the state. And we are setting up the Bengal Silicon Valley hub. This will be complete in the next 5 years. There’s Cognizant, TCS, Wipro, IBM, Tech Mahindra, Accenture…(starts reading from one of his cards).
Cognizant is in Kolkata since 1996. Wipro came to Kolkata in 2004. TCS started functioning in Kolkata in the last century. So did the others you mentioned. Infosys was on the verge of starting operations in 2010. Its status remains the same. Present ‘indefinite’, one might say. Name one IT company that has started functioning under Mamata Banerjee’s rule.
Yes I’ll give you the full list, and I am going to tell you how they have increased their engagement in the state. (He asks his aides to get him ‘the list that Dr. Amit Mitra provided’)
Ok, so as we wait for that, let’s talk about manufacturing and heavy industry. What are the government’s achievements in that sector?
The deep-sea port at Tajpur worth Rs 15,000 crore and Deocha-Pachami is the world’s second largest coal block.
Both of these are at the proposal/EoI stage. You have been in power for two terms. You should be able to talk about industries that are up and running.
Then we must talk about cement (asks for a list and someone gets it for him). Dalmiya Cement, Start Cement, JSW and Emami Cement are our success stories. Besides, BASF (Germany) has set up its plant in Kharagpur. They are making construction chemicals.
See, we have done well in MSMEs because it requires small tracts of land. For big industries, land is the issue. Yes, we could have done better. And our challenge in the third term will be to complete these big-ticket projects. That will be our focus in the next five years.
So do you agree that if not a failure, IT and heavy industry is surely an area where you could have done better?
Of course. When you are in governance, you have to have the humility to admit that this could have been done better in Bengal, and we have that responsibility for the youngsters who are between 18 and 25. Once again, that will be the biggest single challenge for us. MGNREGA is good. Our record is impeccable. But only doing that is certainly not enough. (At this point, an aide brings a list with data on industries, but Derek is not satisfied with it. He returns it.)
And why has the Infosys project not taken shape? Infosys employs so many people even in non-metro cities like Chandigarh or Thiruvananthapuram. These are the issues that matter to the young generation.
Ok. I’ll call up Dr. Amit Mitra and find out right now. He will also tell you about the new entrants in the IT sector. (At this point Derek dials Bengal finance and commerce and industries minister Dr. Amit Mitra, who has opted out of the 2021 elections owing to ill health. After pleasantries are exchanged, Dr. Mitra readily gives out details which Derek gleefully jots down and later reads out to this interviewer).
The Bengal Silicon Valley project was launched on 200 acres of land at Newtown. 79 acres of land have been allotted to 24 IT companies, which will attract investment of around Rs. 11,317 crore and provide huge employment opportunities. Corporate houses like Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), First Source Solutions Limited have already started operations. Various other IT companies such as Infosys, Wipro, etc., have already been given land in Rajarhat, Financial Hub and other places. Apart from this, we have already developed Fintech Hub in New Town.
(When Derek specifically asks about the post-2011 entrants in the sector, Dr Mitra responds with the following details)
Wipro has invested in a new venture worth Rs 500 crore. Airtel Data Centre is coming up; investment amount is Rs 300 crore. Data Centre by Jio on 50 acres is also coming up. TCS had started with 15,000 employees, now it is 44,000 employees. 15,000 additional jobs will be created in the new setup on the 20 acres of land given to them in October 2020. With that, TCS will employ more personnel in Kolkata than in Bengaluru.
Let’s talk about defections. I won’t ask you about individuals, but how does the party see it? Doesn’t it prove that the party has failed to establish any sense of attachment in its leaders, beyond an MLA ticket?
The Trinamool is a family with a heart and soul. No matter what the differences are, no family wants to see its members leave. Similarly, we also don’t. But we are a party in our 20s. So this is part of the growing up process. At the same time, the party feels betrayed, because many of these leaders have admitted themselves that there have been backchannel communications with the BJP for long. This is not done. They are traitors. And all of them had been given internal forums to express themselves.
How do you see the Trinamool’s stand on Bimal Gurung? More than 75 criminal cases including those under arms act and explosives act have been withdrawn after he has joined hands with Mamata Banerjee, and you are now depending on him in the hills.
Bimal Gurung has not joined the Trinamool. He will fight the elections on his own. The people will decide his fate. They are the best judge. And of you are talking about cases, you must ask Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari how they feel being colleagues of Modi And Shah after what happened in 2002. They have blood on their hands. Bimal Gurung is a teddy bear’s picnic compared to them.
Political pundits have singled out the 2018 Bengal Panchayat Polls as a watershed moment in the state’s political history. There was large-scale violence and in more than 30% of seats, the Trinamool won uncontested. In the long run, it automatically created space for the BJP in the state. Your thoughts?
You are making a big issue of the 2018 rural polls, but at least, we did better than Tripura. But in retrospect, when we analyse it, yes, we could have done it better, we could do with less violence. It was a learning curve and I have no qualms admitting it. Look at the present elections, the way they are conducting it. DG removed, ADG removed. One city voting in two phases, one district voting in three phases. This is also not done.
The BJP rose in the state because the Left Front could not reinvent itself after 2011 and the party imploded. The baam (Left) vote went to Ram, as they say. If the opposition space is empty, someone will take that space. Trinamool’s vote share did not fall in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. BJP’s gain was entirely Left and Congress’s loss.
Do you think there has been a criminalisation of politics in the TMC regime? The Left Front’s ground force was largely teachers and lower-level government employees, whereas the TMC’s grassroots cadre is full of local gundas and real estate contractors, who gave rise to the ‘syndicate raj’. Your thoughts?
These are ideas and words coined and spread by the BJP because they don’t have real issues to talk about. And if there is anything such as syndicate, the biggest syndicate king is now in the BJP. And last year in the internal cleanup, some hard decisions were taken. MLAs dropped, dozens of block presidents removed. But we won’t take lessons from the BJP because they are the world’s most corrupt political party.
‘Pahar haschhe, jangalmahal haschhe’ (literally, the hills and the forests are smiling) was your catchphrase in 2016. In 2019 Lok Sabha, you lost almost all seats in these two areas.
We will sweep jangalmahal this time. We have made mistakes and we have learnt from them. We have done great development work this time, no doubt about it. We have really touched lives and changed lives. We will sweep. In the hills, people will give their mandate; we will humbly listen.
Lastly, if, post election, the situation so demands, will you have an understanding with the Left-Congress alliance to stop the BJP?
Post election, the Trinamool Congress headed by Mamata Banerjee will form the government with a comfortable majority. There is no If. We are only pleading for a neutral election. We will win this one. The BJP will be the principal opposition party, and the Left and the Congress will have to try and rebuild. Our vote share will be at least 6 to 7% more than the BJP. We have delivered on the ground, and there is no alternative to the Trinamool Congress.