BJP’s policy of hatred has destroyed the country
West Bengal chief minister MAMATA BANERJEE was her usual feisty and combative self as she sat down for an exclusive interview with Group Editorial Director RAJ CHENGAPPA at her office in Kolkata. She spoke candidly on her bitter battles with the Centre and the BJP, her second term in power, efforts to build an Opposition alliance, relations with Sonia and Rahul Gandhi and accusations that she has built no second line of leadership. Excerpts:
Q. You’ve faced many challenges in your life, whether in your early childhood, or later in politics. What has been the biggest struggle of your life so far?
A. Struggle has been a part and parcel of my life. After my father died, we faced hardship but never asked anybody for help. We were self-sufficient. Student life taught me a lesson—never bow down your head, be straightforward and bold in whatever you do. Then I faced 34 years of Left misrule, their torture. If you see my health reports, I’ve been operated on five to six times, from my brain to my belly to my hands to my eyes. I was about to die so many times. It was only my spirit [that kept me alive]. I was never scared, never afraid.
Q. So was defeating the CPI(M) the hardest of those struggles?
A. We fought them for 34 years, right from our student life. Even now, when we are in government, we are dealing with the effects of Left misrule. In the seven years of my government, we have paid Rs 2,14,000 crore to service the debt [they left behind]. Now how do we run the government, do social work, developmental work? The Centre has not given us any support. We have said so many times that this is not our fault, it is the legacy [we inherited]. Restructure the debt, at least give us some scope to repay. But they are not taking any action. This year, too, we had to pay Rs 47,700 crore as interest.
We want to develop the state, but we are not getting any cooperation from the Centre. Because we do not support them, they are not doing anything for us.
Q. What about the cooperative federalism that Prime Minister Narendra Modi keeps talking about?
A. Forget cooperative federalism, there is no federal structure to speak of now. They (the BJP-led government) want to destroy everything. Their policy of hatred has destroyed the country, destroyed society and destroyed the economy. Now even the media, with exceptions, have become saleable commodities. Recently, the BJP has been talking of the Emergency. But what is it doing now? Everybody is scared, everybody is afraid to speak. There is no freedom of speech or expression because they will just utilise their agencies against you. They arrested our people too, but we will continue to fight our battle.
Q. Are you accusing the Centre of not doing anything for your state?
A. Yes. In fact, it is torturing us every day—mentally, physically, economically, religiously, socially. See the performance of Bengal. India’s GDP growth rate is 6.5 per cent (2017-18), ours is 11.46 per cent. It is a record, almost double the average. If you see gross value addition (GVA), India is at 6.1 per cent, we are 11.8 per cent. Even in industry, India’s growth is 4.4 per cent and we are at 11.4 per cent. In the service sector, India is 8.3 per cent, we are 15.6 per cent. In the agricultural sector, too, India’s growth rate is 2.1 per cent, ours is 2.3 per cent. We are the only state where farmers’ income has tripled [in the TMC’s tenure] even as the PM claims he will double their income.
Q. Have you approached the prime minister?
A. We will not beg. The Government of India discriminates against us, it does not give us any package. Let me give you some more facts. Do you know that Bengal has the highest number of social security schemes? We give rice and wheat at Rs 2 per kilo to 90 million of our people; we give free treatment, free medicines and free beds to all. We have schemes for girl child empowerment—when they turn 18 and want to continue their studies rather than get married, we put Rs 25,000 in their accounts. And we give Rs 25,000 towards marriage expenses of a daughter to families whose income is less than Rs 1.5 lakh a year. We give scholarships to minorities, the tribal people, SCs. We have a scheme to pay for cremation or burial expenses. For every caste, every creed and every need, there is a scheme. Q. Where do you get the money to fund these schemes? What about the state’s fiscal deficit?
A. We manage it. We have increased our revenue, almost doubled it. We balance our spending. We have started so many reforms. We have worked towards decentralisation and efficiency. We had 63 departments and ministries when I took over. We have cut them down to 52. We have won an award for e-governance. In skill development, we are No. 1 in India. Also in small scale industries and development of minorities. We have increased employment opportunities by 40 per cent, which the Government of India also reported in Parliament. We set aside Rs 18,000 crore for infrastructure this year, including flyovers, roads and housing. We also built 43 multi-speciality hospitals, 48 new colleges and 22 new universities, among other things. We have improved everything. That is why our GDP is sky high.
Q. Yet Prime Minister Modi’s schemes like Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao are better known than yours.
A. They are masters of publicity; they spend lots of money on it, we don’t. We feel every paisa is important, it is our people’s money. Take the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao scheme. In the past four years, the central government has set aside Rs 600 crore for 29 states and Union territories. I have already spent Rs 5,500 crore in my state for our Kanyashree girl empowerment scheme which has benefitted 5 million girls. And what has the Centre spent? Just Rs 20 crore per state. So what could it have achieved?
Q. In terms of policies, you seem more leftist than the Left itself...
A. I am not Left or Right. I believe in nationalism, patriotism, the federal structure, democracy and the poor. If you ask me to define my party’s ideology in one line, I would say it is government of the people, for the people, by the people. It is in our name Trinamool Congress, which in English means grassroots level.
The Centre is a master at publicity. They spent just Rs 600 cr on Beti Bachao in all the states. I have spent Rs 5,500 cr on girls’ empowerment”
Q. This is your second term as chief minister, what are you doing differently this time?
A. Governance is a continuous process and we are implementing the projects we started. This term, I am doing more for unemployment and industry. As I said earlier, employment opportunities have increased by 40 per cent. In terms of industrialisation, we plan to do more for infrastructure. A Silicon Valley-like project will be set up in Bengal. We have already identified the land and we will inaugurate it in September. There are more such projects in the pipeline. I wanted to construct two ports, but the central government agreed to only one. We also started the Global Bengal industrial conference to attract investments.
Q. Your image before you took over as CM was anti-reform, anti-industry. Has there been a transformation? A. There is no transformation. Whatever I was in the beginning, I still am. Development is my dream. It is also a struggle. I have never seen such atrocities by any central government. As regards development, I will give just one example. They started GST hurriedly, the unorganised sector was badly affected. Even by demonetisation. On the day it was introduced, I said demonetisation was big corruption. And now GST. Every state has minus growth, minus 18 per cent [in some cases], only Bengal has surplus. How do you think this has happened? If there is no reform, no activity, no action, no restructuring, how do you develop financially? I challenge anyone else to do the same.
Q. The impression stems from what happened to the Tata factory in Singur and others…
A. So many Tata factories are working in the state now. The Tatas are also working with the government. It is not that we were against any individual company. The policy to force people to sell land was wrong. See our policy now. We have a land bank, a land use and land purchase policy. We are giving land to industry. If there is anything connected with roads, flyovers, railways, we go for negotiation. We don’t evict people forcibly.
Q. What is your policy in terms of industry? Do you believe in public-private partnership?
A. Yes, we have had many PPPs. We have also gone for mergers. There are so many sick industries here. The mergers have helped, the employees are working and they are happy. The extra land I can use for new ventures, the employees I have accommodated in different sectors.
Q. Do you support the disinvestment of Air India?
A. I don’t support it. If you have poverty in your home, do you sell everything in your home? Your daughter, your son, your wife, your parents? Air India is a national and international brand name. You have already sold all the important Air India routes, destroyed the organisation. But please don’t sell the country’s prestige. You have so much privatisation in the aviation industry. There are so many private airlines now. We are not against them. Let business go on in the private and public sector. But instead of closing down public sector companies, three or four can be merged into one.
Q. PM Modi feels that governments should not be doing anything that businesses can do.
A. Business is different, social compulsions are different.
I don’t support [the disinvestment of Air India]. If there is poverty in your home, do you sell everything? Your son, your daughter, your wife, your parents?”
Why do European countries have social security programmes? If someone dies, why does everyone attend their cremation? It is not out of compulsion but because of friendship, a relationship. It differs from issue to issue. You go for privatisation where it is necessary. But what was the need for demonetisation? How did the country benefit from it? Only his party benefitted. Now the BJP is spending crores on the elections. They are giving bikes to BJP workers, cars, looting money and giving it to their partymen. How will poor people fight elections? If you want to reform the country, go for electoral reforms.
Q. Why haven’t you shared your ideas with the Centre?
A. They are big people, I cannot give them advice. I am a very simple person. There is a proverb in Bengali ‘Bou, buddhi aar boi kau ke debe na’, which means ‘never give your wife, your intellect and your books to anyone, they’ll never be returned’. If there are changes in the federal structure and the regional parties come to power, I’ll give my views.
Q. You have become the fulcrum of an opposition alliance. Do you think such an alliance is feasible?
A. Yes, it is possible. I am very optimistic. It is very simple. Everybody has to work together. I believe whoever is strong wherever, let them fight the election. Wherever the Congress is strong, let them fight the election, wherever the regional parties are strong, let them fight the election.
Q. You are saying a single common candidate must be put up?
A. I am not saying that. If it is done for 75 seats, then the game will be over. If Mayawati and Akhilesh work together in Uttar Pradesh, the game will be over. Then after the elections, a common minimum agenda can be prepared. It is a big family, let it be a collective decision.
Q. So all of you are working together on an anti-Modi, anti-BJP vote?
A. They are committing atrocities, inflicting torture! Even some BJP people are not supporting them. They are behaving like a hundred Hitlers.
Q. You are calling Modi a Hitler as well?
A. I am not. I have no comment on him, let the public judge him. Whatever opinion I have of the BJP, I have told you.
Q. When you ask for votes to defeat the BJP, what will you say? A. Why should I tell you right now? We have everything ready, when the elections come, you’ll see. If you want to hear the music, you have to wait till the festival. We’ll show our slogan at the time of the festival of democracy, in the next election.
Q. Some Opposition parties want a federal front without the Congress.
A. Some parties don’t support the Congress, they have their own regional compulsions. I don’t blame them. I say let’s work against the BJP together. If the Congress is strong and gets more seats in some places, let it take the lead. If the regional parties are together somewhere else, they can be the decision-makers. On this, I totally agree with Chandrashekar Rao, Chandrababu Naidu, the DMK, H.D. Kumaraswamy, Arvind Kejriwal or any other party. I don’t want to eliminate anybody, even the Shiv Sena.
Q. You are not averse to dealing with the Congress or having an understanding with the party?
A. I don’t have any problem. My intention will be to unite with all. But it is not my decision alone. It has to be the decision of all the regional parties. I have no problem working with anybody as long as they are efficient, and their intentions, their philosophy, their ideology are clear. My only intent is that we should unite the people of the country.
Q. How are your relations with Sonia Gandhi?
A. My relations with her are very good, I respect her. She is very gentle, sober and polite. And she listens. We have never had a quarrel.
Q. What do you think of the current Congress president, Rahul Gandhi?
A. I have not worked with him, so give me some time. He is from the younger generation, let them work according to their choice. He is also from the Congress family. I have respect for them. Let them also serve the people as they can. What I can say about Rajivji or Soniaji I cannot say about Rahul because he is much junior.
I am very optimistic about an opposition alliance. Where the Congress is strong, let it fight the election, where regional parties are strong, they should fight the election”
Q. You think you can work with Rahul if the circumstances demand?
A. I said collective family, whatever the country decides. I am nobody. We have to trust the decision and mandate of the people. We have to take our countrymen into confidence. Whatever the regional parties decide, we will abide by that. But some parties have their own problems, their own regional compulsions. We have to respect those too.
Q. What about the leadership?
A. Leadership will not be a problem. If there is understanding, everything can be sorted out.
Q. Am I speaking to a prospective prime minister of the country, you?
A. Me? It is a very silly question. First I will say I have no intent. I told you, I am a simple person and happy with my job. But we want to help everybody as members of a collective family. Instead of preparing for PM candidature, let us work together.
Q. But you are not ruling yourself out...
A. Who am I to rule out anything? I know I am a seasoned politician, a very senior politician now, after my struggles. I have been MP seven times, MLA twice and a CM twice. So I cannot say anything that others may not like.
Q. Rahul Gandhi has said he is working towards becoming the prime minister.
A. It is his prerogative. If his party gets a majority, why not? It depends on the public. Q. You have worked with the NDA in the past when Atalji was prime minister…
A. Only for Atalji. Because he was a secular man. At the time, the BJP was also not in a majority, it was dependent on the allies. There was a common NDA agenda and we worked together on it. We were happy with Atalji. There are some ministers we respect—Rajnathji, Sushmaji and others.
Q. How would you compare Atalji with Modiji? A. Atalji is Atalji.
Q. Let me flip the question. If tomorrow the BJP’s numbers drop below the majority mark and they approach you for support, would you ally with the NDA?
A. I am not a political astrologer. You have seen the results, of the byelections and other polls. Whatever the BJP got was their peak, they have reached the top of the mountain. They can’t go any further, they have to come down. On that, our math is clear.
Who am I to rule it out [being PM]? I am a senior politician, I have been MP seven times, MLA twice and now CM twice”
Q. So, would you support such an NDA formation?
A. I cannot support those who cause atrocities. We can only support a democratic system, the unity of this country, an economic agenda that is for the people.
Q. When you say government atrocities, are you talking about PM Modi and the way he runs the government? A. I am not saying anything against any individual. I am not saying anything against the prime minister or his government. It is not in my ethics to do that.
Q. Let me ask you then about the central government’s performance in the past four years.
A. Except for the publicity, their performance is zero. From foreign policy to economic policy, they have failed in every department. Even Parliament is not running properly. If you see the functioning of Parliament during this government, you will hardly see a working day. It is the duty of both sides to patch up, but they are not interested. So many important bills have been passed just by voice vote.
Q. The BJP has now become your primary opposition in your state. The Congress has fallen behind the CPI(M)? A. I may be No. 1 but I cannot decide who will be No. 2, No. 3 or No. 4. If the Congress says something, and the CPI(M) says something, and if they surrender to it and convert the Congress to BJP or the CPI(M) to BJP, it is not my fault, it is not my game or my area. Then let them be ‘chhagaler tritiyo santan’ (the goat’s third child).
Q. In the recent panchayat elections, the BJP emerged as the second largest party. Do you see the BJP as a threat? A. What threat? In Bengal, the BJP is nothing—we got 82 per cent of the panchayat samitis and 95 per cent of zilla parishads. There is a proverb, the mothers of thieves shout the most. Even in the byelection result after that, we won by over 60,000 votes.
Q. Amit Shah has been talking about winning 22 seats in Bengal in the next Lok Sabha elections...
A. Please don’t mention his name. I am not going to answer this. Let me ask a question. What are they doing through the intelligence agencies? I have never heard of such important institutions working just for one party. They cannot fight us politically, so they are threatening us through these agencies. How many businessmen have left India? More than 75,000. If you ask them secretly, confidentially, everybody is against them. But they are afraid to speak, they are afraid to open their mouths. They can try to kill me also. I am not afraid, but we will fight this battle.
Q. Their counter-charge is that it is your party that is indulging in violence.
A. What violence are you talking about? In the panchayat elections, my party lost 30 people. The BJP lost only two and that too due to infighting. They hired the goons. Bengal is a peaceful, development-oriented state. The BJP, with their fake news, is trying to give us a bad name.
Q. What was behind the cancellation of your trip to China? A. I know there was some foul play. I cannot discuss it because I respect my country, that’s why despite knowing the details, I will not tell you. Tell me why my Chicago trip was cancelled. Swami Vivekananda was the son of this soil, Ramakrishna Mission was his birthplace. They invited me for the 125th anniversary of his Chicago speech. This is the letter that says please come, and I accepted their invitation. Why did they cancel the programme after that? You see their language, they talk of unforeseen difficulties. What does that mean, don’t you think they are being threatened?
Q. You think the BJP and RSS are doing this directly? A. They have A to Z parivars, so I do not know. They even started an agitation against me when I visited the Puri temple, saying I was not a Hindu. Who are they to decide whether I am Hindu, Muslim or Christian? I have inherited my religion, my caste, my home from my parents.
Q. What are your religious or spiritual beliefs?
A. I love all religions. I attend all the festivals, the Durga pujas, Eid namaz, midnight masses of Christians, Sikh programmes, Chhat puja, Buddhist events, Deepavali celebrations... Why not? A festival is for everyone.
Q. But the Sangh accuses you of minority appeasement? A. What do they want me to do? To be like them and go lynch people? Bengal has one of the highest concentrations of Muslims, over 27 per cent. Do you think they are not voting for me? Do you think the Christians, tribals, Scheduled Castes are not voting for me? Do I need the BJP to tell me who I am, who my parents are, where I was born, what my caste is? Bengal is a very cosmopolitan place.
What does the Sangh want me to do, be like them and lynch people? Bengal has one of the highest concentrations of Muslims... I am a liberal Hindu, not a militant one”
Q. What is your view on cow vigilantism and the beef ban? A. We don’t support any terrorist organisation, be it ISIS or RSS militants. I respect some people (in the RSS) who are dedicated but I cannot condone people who are doing all this in the name of Ram. They are insulting our Hindu religion, I am sorry to say. Our gods and goddesses never taught us this. Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Rabindranath Tagore and all the gods taught us to love everybody and live in peace.
Q. What is your notion of Hinduism?
A. What Swami Vivekananda said, universalisation of religion. You cannot divide the country with your militant activities, your politics of hate. You are giving Hindus a bad name. Hindus are bigger than that, they are very liberal. I am a liberal Hindu, not a militant one.
Q. You have put the RSS and ISIS on the same platform? A. I respect some RSS members. But I don’t respect these men who are killing and lynching people, those who are spreading false propaganda. They are torturing the minorities, even Dalit Hindus. They are behaving like supergods.
Q. One of the people you admire, Pranabda [Mukherjee], recently agreed to deliver a lecture at the RSS headquarters. A. Please don’t ask me about this, I am really disturbed.
Q. If the RSS asks you to speak to its cadre, would you go? A. If they leave the BJP and say we are for the country’s unity, then I will think about it. Not before that.
Q. When it comes to party leadership, there is only one leader in the TMC and that is you, where is the second line?
A. Which party does not have one leader? In the BJP, PM Modiji is the leader; in the Congress, Sonia Gandhi was the leader, now someone else has become the president of the party. In the NCP, there is Sharad Pawar, the DMK has Stalin, Mulayam Singh’s son Akhilesh is the leader of their party, the BSP has Mayawati. In my party, I am the chairman till the time people have trust in me. We do have a second, third and fourth generation. This is not a party of an individual but a collective.
Q. What do you think of dynastic politics?
A. If people have been in politics from the beginning, if they work from the grassroots level, then there is no harm. If they just come and want to be prime minister, that’s different.
Q. Everyone says your nephew (Abhishek Banerjee) is growing fast in the party.
A. I hate responding to these kind of questions. He is just an MP. One out of 47 Trinamool MPs. Only one person from our family has joined politics. I want everybody young to join politics. If you don’t build up your young generation, who will take the lead? You have to prepare the younger generation. I have told all my MLAs and MPs to bring in their sons, daughters, relatives. Politics is a difficult place. Whoever is dedicated, dynamic or determined, sincerely devoted to working for the people, I want such people with us. Whoever is selfish, only wants to collect and get money, I don’t like them.
Q. Finally, who is your mentor? What inspires you?
A. My mentors are the common people and my inspiration is my struggle. My parents were not from a very rich family, they came from a common background. They were not able to give us an English education but they did leave us with good life lessons—unity, integrity, loving everybody, thinking about everybody, speaking for everybody, being together, not hating anybody. Be a good human being first, then practise your politics. What you become is because of your beginnings.
Which party does not have one leader? In the BJP, Modiji is the leader, in the Congress it was Sonia Gandhi till recently. In the TMC, I will be chairman till the people have faith in me”