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April 25, 2001


Birla Mutual



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The Rediff Interview/ Ajit Kumar Panja

'Mamata's emotional quotient is greater than her IQ'

Trinamul Congress leader and former minister of state for external affairs Ajit Kumar Panja has done what no one in his party dared to do: He slammed party chief and former railway minister Mamata Banerjee at a news conference last week in Calcutta.

Panja charged Banerjee with running the party in dictatorial fashion and lamented that he had been subjected to considerable humiliation in the last two-and-a-half years.

After his attack, Panja has been isolated by the Trinamul leadership. He says no one from the party has asked him to campaign for next month's assembly election in Bengal. He says he will stay away even from campaigning for his daughter Trinamul candidate Mahua Mondal unless she invites him, which she has chosen not to do under understandable compulsions.

In a free-wheeling interview with Rifat Jawaid, Panja explains the reasons that prompted him to draw swords with Mamata Banerjee.

Why did you chose to go public with your personal grievances against Mamata Banerjee at a time when the Trinamul takes on the Left Front in a do-or-die battle in Bengal?

I felt enough was enough. I found I must tell the truth to the people, candidates and the common workers. It's not just the question of withdrawing support from the NDA on the Tehelka issue, the fact remains that Banerjee had been meting out humiliation for the past two-and-a-half years. I didn't say a word ever. But this time it really became unbearable. Let me start with our decision to quit the National Democratic Alliance government first...

After resigning from the NDA when we returned to Calcutta, we held an emergency meeting at Sudip's (Trinamul Congress MP Bandopadhyay) house. I was there. Suddenly, Mamata got up in anger and began accusing me of indulging in anti-party activities.

Pointing her finger at me, she alleged I was maintaining tacit links with Prime Minister Vajpayee and (Home Minister Lal Kishenchand) Advani. She didn't stop there. She began threatening junior party workers, saying, 'anyone found involved in such acts, would be punished in a similar manner as I have done with him (me).'

I had decided to leave the meeting when Mamata probably realised her mistake. She apologised to me admitting she felt very bad about her behaviour.

It all began over two years ago when I was the Trinamul's chief whip in Parliament. I issued a whip to all Trinamul MPs directing them to vote in favour of Vajpayee (during the no confidence motion of April 1999). Mamata woke up late that day following her work schedule the previous night.

When she was about to leave for Parliament, somebody instigated her against me, alleging that I had not issued any whip at all. The conspirator told Mamata that Ajitda would issue a whip in such a tactical manner whereby he would easily be able to vote in favour of Sonia (Gandhi).

Mamata was given to understand that I had entered into a clandestine deal with Sonia. That was indeed too much. When I came home at 4 pm, leaders like Mukul Roy, Sanjoy Bakshi, Subroto Bakshi met me conveying Mamata's apologetic message. They said Mamata had apologised for her rude behaviour. I told them that although I had made up my mind to resign from my post, I would not do so now since Mamata had said it was a mistake.

Everything was happening relatively fine until we quit the NDA Cabinet on the petrol price hike issue during Durga Puja (last year). Even then I told Mamata to maintain the status quo till the PM recovered from his illness. I suggested it was not ethical to trouble the PM, who was about to undergo a major operation. She agreed with my reasoning.

When a reporter asked me about the Trinamul stand on the resignation, my answer was that we would not create further disturbances for the PM until he returned from hospital. The next day, I saw Sudip contradicting the stand both Mamata and I had taken and described my statement as my personal opinion.

If indeed Mamata felt I should not have made such a statement, she should have asked me to issue an apology rather than allow Sudip to ridicule me in public. What happened in the end? We had to eat humble pie by withdrawing our resignations.

As if it was not enough, Mamata did not spare me during the Calcutta municipal poll last year. She bypassed me on crucial decisions and fielded candidates in my constituency against my wishes. I was not in favour of giving the Bharatiya Janata Party more than two seats, yet she chose to give the party six, all of whom lost miserably.

Do you think Mamata insulted you time and again under some…

See, it was a fallout of whimsical reactions. If I say I differ on certain issues, I must pronounce it clearly without any tinge of ambiguity. I have always been opposed to the Pranab Mukherjee-type of leader who often resorted to the money game in order to ensure election to the Rajya Sabha.

Even Mamata never liked him, so much so that she wrote a book titled Crocodile Tears on him. Now you can see how both are going overboard in showering praises for each other. She did not notice that Mukherjee had taken her for a ride even while issuing a joint manifesto for the assembly election.

Mamata, being All India Trinamul president, should not have settled for anything less than Sonia's signature. Yet she, in her prudence, chose to sign beside a person who is merely the state president of a party.

In our previous two manifestos, we were very scathing in our attack on the Congress, dubbing it as the 'B' team of the Communist Party of India-Marxist. We also criticised Pranab Mukherjee for getting elected to the Rajya Sabha by paying money. If at all, Mamata thought that an alliance was necessary with the Congress, she should have explained the reasons for that in the manifesto. Ironically, there is not a word on this issue in the manifesto.

Will you campaign for the Trinamul-Congress combine?

First, I will never campaign for Congress candidates, even though it is an ally of the Trinamul in the assembly election. As for the Trinamul, all will depend on who invites me for canvassing. I will only campaign if invited.

Does this stand apply to your daughter as well, who is making her debut on the Trinamul ticket from Vidyasagar?

First, she is a Trinamul candidate. I will not campaign even for her unless she extends me a formal invitation. I guess she is capable enough to ensure victory for herself on her own. It won't make much difference if I don't campaign for my daughter. Why my daughter alone, there are many powerful leaders in the Trinamul who wield charismatic clout throughout Bengal. I don't think anyone is indispensable in the Trinamul.

Who do you think are the conspirators within the Trinamul?

One of them is our parliamentary party leader Sudip Bandopadhyay. He did everything intentionally, to sideline me. Whenever I went to meet Mamata in Delhi, there was not a single occasion when I didn't find Sudip sitting there.

Just because he stays opposite Mamata's residence does not mean I can't hold private deliberations with my party chief ever. I told Mamata many times that there were certain issues that I needed to discuss with her in private, but she being a nice lady could not ask Sudip to leave her home.

Why did Mamata join hands with the Congress?

Because, her emotional quotient is greater than her intelligence quotient. Conspirators around her have numbed her reasoning power. But I pray to God that this doesn't last for long. After all, even the sun gets eclipsed, therefore I sincerely hope the crisis in the Trinamul too blows away like an eclipse.

How do you rate the chances of the Trinamul-Congress combine in the assembly election?

The Trinamul-Congress alliance will never win sufficient number of seats to take it to Writers Building. Had Mamata gone alone or even with the BJP, she would have had a fair chance of becoming Bengal's next chief minister.

How do you justify this assessment, when 30 per cent of the Bengali electorate is Muslim who may not vote for any alliance where the BJP is associated, even indirectly?

Muslims have seen the governance of Vajpayee. There has not been any communal violence under NDA rule. Even if there were some religious turbulence, the Vajpayee government took prompt action to restore normalcy.

I have dealt with Haj, therefore I know how co-operative the prime minister was while increasing the quota for Haj pilgrims this year. He smilingly approved 120,000 people to perform Haj this year as against 80,000 in the past. That is precisely why I feel that Muslims in Bengal would have voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Trinamul-BJP alliance.

You grumble Mamata did not take you into confidence while withdrawing support from the NDA on the Tehelka issue. However, your brother and the MP from Barasat, Ranjit Kumar Panja, said you were one of the signatories on the letter, withdrawing support to the NDA.

True, I was one of the signatories. But we signed the letter on pulling out of the government and not withdrawing support. We had unanimously decided that even though we would leave the NDA ministry, our support to the government would continue from outside. However, we would abstain if the House voted on the Tehelka issue. Again Mamata performed a volte face going back from what we had decided in Delhi.

The deadlock in the Lok Sabha is over. Are you planning to attend Parliament? Where would you prefer to sit?

I have written to Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan about allotting me a separate seat. He has not replied yet. Until I am told what my new seating adjustment would be, I can't attend Parliament.

Bengal's BJP leadership has made you an offer to join the party. Will you accept?

The question does not arise. The Trinamul has been formed out of my blood. I can't leave my baby for any party.

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