Interview with Om Prakash Mishra, West Bengal Congress general secretary.
WE don't want a break, but we do not mind a break-up. Pradesh Congress general secretary Om Prakash Mishra makes it clear that relations between the Trinamool Congress and the West Bengal Pradesh Congress, after a year together in power, have deteriorated further. In an exclusive interview with Frontline, Mishra, a professor of International Relations at Jadavpur University, spoke on the main issues of friction between the two parties and on the future of the alliance. Excerpts:
After a year together in the government, have relations improved between the Congress and the Trinamool?
As you know, both the parties fought together in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and in the 2011 Assembly elections. The Trinamool Congress realised that it could not go it alone in West Bengal. It needed the Congress, and earlier, it needed the BJP. Now it is a part of the UPA [United Progressive Alliance], and its parliamentary strength rose from one in 2004 to 19 in 2009. Our relations are supposed to be cordial and expected to be improving. However, it is just the reverse. The Trinamool would like to capture the entire political space of the Congress, which we would naturally contest, and we have been successfully doing that.
We did expect the Trinamool Congress to respect the sacrifices the Congress made while accommodating the Trinamool in the Lok Sabha and the Assembly elections, but it has been most uncooperative when it comes to relations at the grass-roots and district levels. Almost in all the blocks, the Congress and the Trinamool are at loggerheads. While the Trinamool has been on an expanding spree, the Congress has been able to protect its core base and also attract support from the disenchanted section of the populace.
It must also be noted that Trinamool workers and leaders have been rewarded amply at different levels involving government appointments, but the Congress has been completely sidelined. There is no coordination mechanism between the two parties. Even the letters of the Pradesh Congress chief are being ignored and routinely ridiculed.
Moreover, the Trinamool has been acquiring new members of questionable reputation from the CPI(M) [Communist Party of India (Marxist)] ranks. Since the original Trinamool and Congress workers have been at the receiving end of these CPI(M) cadre, relations between local Trinamool leaderships and the Congress workers have deteriorated beyond repair. The process has also brought about a lot of disenchantment among the original workers of the Trinamool. The last one year has been a most uneasy coexistence, which has made both partners more resentful and suspicious of each other than ever before.
What are the main issues of friction? How do you think they can be resolved?
Both parties have been competing for the same political space, and the Trinamool has been relentless in its pursuit of defectors from the Congress ranks. All forms of allurement are being offered to engineer defection from the Congress at the district, municipal and panchayat levels. The Congress cannot be expected to be charitable towards such moves.
Secondly, a governance deficit is increasingly manifest, and the Trinamool is using the language of authority instead of responsibility. Thirdly, we have been raising certain crucial issues that the Trinamool has been ignoring, such as remunerative and support prices for agricultural produce, suicide of farmers and agricultural workers, crib deaths in government hospitals. But the Trinamool has been in denial mode on all policy and governance issues.
Moreover, the State government has been following a policy of high-handedness and partiality towards a large section of the media. Its approach has been discriminatory and contrary to democratic norms. Whether it is the question of insensitiveness towards instances of rape or partiality towards select media houses or the beating up of political opponents, the record of the Trinamool government is increasingly under the scanner.
Left Front supporters as well as Congress workers have been assaulted and even murdered by increasingly hostile Trinamool activists in various parts of the State. The ruling party has, in fact, been emulating the means and methods employed by the CPI(M) in its attempt to silence the opposition and in its pursuit of area domination.
We have time and again asked for a mechanism to facilitate transparent decision-making but have been turned down.
These differences can only be resolved if the Trinamool functions in a non-partisan manner, decides to stop engineering defections, constitutes a coordination mechanism to address governance issues, stops politicising social issues, and maintains impartiality in administration.
After just 11 months in power, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee claims to have achieved 90 per cent of the work she had set out to do and has announced that in one year her government has done 10 years' work. How does its ally, the Congress, assess the government's work?
The government has been very proactive, but it is a government of announcements and pronouncements. Unfortunately, the legacy of the Left Front government cannot be undone overnight, and, again, unfortunately the present government has been emulating the CPI(M). To give an assessment is a difficult undertaking, especially if the Chief Minister is in self-congratulatory mode all the time. We have pointed out to her a number of issues and problem areas where the government has failed.
There has been talk of the Congress going it alone in the panchayat elections.
As a political party, we are expected to contest on our own. The question of seat adjustment arises when two or more parties' views and interests converge. In the last panchayat elections there was no official tie-up with the Trinamool, but at the grass-roots level, adjustments and arrangements did take place. The Pradesh Congress leadership usually does not interfere in these processes. The biggest challenge for all the political parties, including the Congress this time, is to find an adequate number of women candidates. We also have to see if the Trinamool will follow the CPI(M) method and deny the opposition [an opportunity] to even file nominations. The third biggest challenge before us is to approach the people with our ideology and our stance on the question of development and also protecting the constitutional guarantees of autonomy for and empowerment of the elected bodies in the three-tier panchayat system.
The question of seat adjustment with the Trinamool may be decided at the block or district level. But the Pradesh Congress will encourage its workers to contest the elections. Wherever we are in a position to contest on our own, we will definitely do so, and our strength is rising.
So, are you heading towards a split at the State-level?
It is difficult to say if there will be a complete rupture. We do not want it. But while we are interested in sailing alongside the Trinamool, we are not prepared to sink with it given the policies that the Trinamool-led government is following.
How much is Mamata Banerjee's influence at the Centre and the strategic importance of her political support for the UPA hamstringing the Pradesh Congress' policies?
The central Congress leadership has never discouraged us from undertaking political programmes even those that are critical of the State government. But we fought the elections together, so it is expected that we would have an interdependent relationship. However, the Trinamool Congress is volatile and has taken strong stands, most of which are generally not in line with the policies of development and governance. But I do admit that our approach is sometimes affected by our alliance. But that does not take away our advocacy of pro-farmer policies, etc. We have been consistently opposing many of the unpopular moves of the government, and not once has the high command interfered.
A section of the Congress leadership, including yourself, has been maintaining that the Congress' self-esteem and pride should not be compromised under any circumstances. Yet, it has repeatedly happened in this alliance.
The Trinamool speaks the language of ultimatums, deadlines, and now, even the social boycott of the opposition. It attempts to muzzle the press and restrict the freedom of expression. We oppose these. We have sacrificed much political space for the Trinamool in the two polls so [that] we could achieve our goal of ousting the Left Front government. However, we cannot be expected to compromise beyond a point. At some point, this has to stop. Congress workers want it sooner [rather] than later.
That breaking point you talk of at what point does it come?
We do not want a break. But we do not mind a break-up. The ball is in their court. The panchayat elections will be a very crucial indicator of the direction of the State's politics.