In 2019, at a time when defections from the Trinamool Congress to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were the trend in West Bengal, Om Prakash Mishra, veteran Congress leader and party vice president, joined the Trinamool, claiming that it was the only party that could take on the rising BJP in the State. Mishra, a professor at Jadavpur University, is a member of the Trinamool’s core committee and its spokesperson. In an interview to Frontline , he talks about the Trinamool’s repeated political allegations against the Congress and the cold war between the two parties. “The Congress leadership is either absent or dithers and often fails to take on the BJP juggernaut effectively,” he says. Excerpts.
There is a perception that the Trinamool is trying to take over the Congress’ place as the main opponent of the BJP at the national level. Is this correct?
India is a very big country with 543 Lok Sabha constituencies. No single political formation is either present or represented throughout the country. The Trinamool is the pre-eminent political party in the third largest State. As such, the ideological and political opposition to the BJP has to be channelised through parties like the Trinamool. We have never claimed to be the only alternative to the BJP. In fact, time and again our leader Mamata Banerjee has called for consistent, cohesive and contributory efforts throughout the country to fight the BJP. As a big party, the Indian National Congress is an important constituent in any such effort that can be organised at the national level. Mutuality and interdependence among parties opposed to the BJP are a necessity that has repeatedly been articulated by the Trinamool. We would like to broaden the coalition on the basis of issues and agendas against one of the most disastrous Union governments at the Centre. Effective articulation, necessary coordination and an accommodative approach can illuminate the path of the opposition to victory in 2024. The Trinamool is willing to play its due role, complement other parties’ efforts and help build up synergies.
So why this war of words?
Every political party has certain limitations in the political geography of our vast country. We are lacking physical presence in many States, and so is the case with the Congress. In Maharashtra and Jharkhand, the Congress is part of the government led by other political parties. In West Bengal, it has no representation in the Assembly. In the recent byelections in Assam and other north-eastern States, the Congress could not win a single seat. Unfortunately, the Congress could not sustain its governments in Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. Again, despite having a close shot at forming the government, it squandered away its advantage and the BJP formed governments in Goa and Manipur. The Congress arrogantly believes itself to be the only opposition. Everyone will agree that the opposition needs to get its act together. Mamata Banerjee has been repeatedly saying this. But we do not see any initiative from the Congress to participate and help build up a coalition of parties opposed to the BJP. As a result, coordination among the parties has become a casualty. Again, why should all the parties opposed to the BJP not come together? What about CPI(ML) [Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist]? After all, it is part of the Mahagatbandhan led by the RJD [Rashtriya Janata Dal] in Bihar.
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You were a prominent Congress leader before joining the Trinamool in 2019. What are the main differences between the Trinamool’s opposition to the BJP, and the Congress’?
The Trinamool is focussed, consistent, and has a much better understanding of ground realities. As Abhishek Banerjee [national general secretary of the Trinamool and Mamata Banerjee’s nephew] pointed out, while the Congress has been ceding space to the BJP, the Trinamool has been repeatedly winning against it.
On the matter of leadership, Mamata Banerjee is endowed with exceptional qualities as an administrator and can steer public policy in a most effective way. Unfortunately, the Congress leadership is either absent or dithers and often fails to take on the BJP juggernaut. This weakens the fight of the people of the country against the manifold and staggering failures of the [Narendra] Modi government. The Congress and the CPI(M) [Communist Party of India (Marxist)] in Bengal are yet to offer an explanation in the public domain as to how and why they allowed the BJP to usurp the opposition space in the Lok Sabha election in 2019. How come the BJP secured about 40 per cent of the votes? The Trinamool is the only political party in the country which has been consistently increasing its vote share, even in the 2019 election. So, my joining the Trinamool Congress was to strengthen Mamata Banerjee’ resolve to take on the BJP.
Is it realistic at the moment to think of a non-BJP government at the Centre without the Congress?
The political geography of the Indian parliamentary system does not sit comfortably with this proposition. A coalition of willing political parties is a prerequisite to defeat the BJP. However, the contour of such opposition to the BJP should be located in different States differently. As such, an interdependent matrix has to be evolved, preferably before the election. Mamata Banerjee is best suited to bring different parties opposed to the BJP together. She has repeatedly disowned a leadership role for herself. All the leaders are important, but there are advantages she represents. The Trinamool’s success in defeating the BJP in a comprehensive way in Bengal is a national reference point for the people in the country. She has won seven Lok Sabha elections, has served the Council of Ministers under three different Prime Ministers, and the Trinamool has also been elected thrice in West Bengal under her leadership. She is an asset to the opposition and must be cultivated and supported by all right-thinking, liberal, secular people and political parties to usher in a non-BJP government in India. I should add that Mamata Banerjee has been categorical that the question of leadership is not the issue. Building up a coalition against the BJP is the main issue. It is natural for supporters to root for their own parties and believe their leader is the leader of the next government. However, it is a disaster to imprison the much-needed efforts for unity of the opposition parties merely on the basis of a liking or desire for one single party.
You are talking of coalition and cohesion, but the Trinamool is challenging the Congress in Goa and Tripura.
Both Tripura and Goa are ruled by the BJP. The Congress squandered its chances in Goa, and in Tripura the Congress could not win a single seat. We are not going to counter the Congress in these two States but the ruling BJP. By definition, political parties tend to expand their base and support. The Congress is fighting us in Bengal, it is fighting the CPI(M) in Kerala, and it fought the RJD in Bihar in the byelection. There can always be cooperation, but let us admit there will be elements of competition too. Can we say that the Congress is trying to mar the pitch for Akhilesh Yadav? Can we ask why the Congress put up candidates against the RJD in the bypolls? Is it not a fact that five BSP [Bahujan Samajwadi Party] MLAs joined the Congress? Kanhaiya Kumar left the CPI [Communist Party of India] for the Congress. Why is only the Trinamool being blamed? After all, we have every right to expand our presence and sharpen our opposition to the BJP like any other political party. This is what we are doing and fortunately there is a dynamism and momentum in the TMC’s forward march.