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Meet the Opposition's grand marshall in the Rajya Sabha

By Rahul Jacob and Archis Mohan
August 10, 2019 09:48 IST
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Despite the Congress having nearly four times as many members in the Rajya Sabha as the TMC (48 to 13), Derek O'Brien has been informally leading the coordination of Opposition parties, rallying other parties to demand a discussion on electoral reforms and to protest the government's disinvestment plans, report Rahul Jacob and Archis Mohan.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

Derek O' Brien, Rajya Sabha MP for Trinamool Congress speaks to Rahul Jacob and Archis Mohan.

Saravana Bhavan on Saturday morning 9.15 am is a lone hive of activity in the usually frenetic Connaught Place in central Delhi.

The McDonald's next door is devoid of customers.

Saravana suffers from the opposite problem; queues outside its doors on a Saturday are par for the course.

Knowing this, we are, literally and metaphorically, at a sprint as we coordinate our scramble for a table at the south Indian restaurant.


It is a few minutes before Derek O' Brien, Rajya Sabha MP for Trinamool Congress, arrives.

As a setting for an interview, Saravana is a less than ideal choice.

It teems with noisy families, celebrating Saturday as if it might be an annual holiday.

The one quiet area is inexplicably cordoned off with ropes.

Viewed from the perspective of a native Calcuttan -- and O'Brien is the very definition of one from his witty, argumentative style to reading the Bengali press before he turns to the Indian Express and Business Standard -- his selection of Saravana makes complete sense.

Its idlis are delicious, the crowds flock there; for a Calcuttan, that is all that matters.

The place turns out to be O'Brien's regular Saturday morning ritual when he is in Delhi.

Almost without preamble, he begins by reminiscing about helping input and proof his first quiz book more than three decades ago in the small data-typesetting office Rahul's father set up.

O'Brien hasn't really met Rahul since the 1980s when Rahul was a spectator at the exciting quiz contests his father Neil, a nominated Anglo-Indian member of Parliament, was known for running as quizmaster.

Archis knows Derek well as a member of the Rajya Sabha.

O'Brien lets slip that he has long read Business Standard with a pen in hand to mark articles.

His and his party's views run counter to the generally pro free market editorials of the paper, however.

Putting his TMC hat on, he squarely opposes privatising Air India, for instance, and improbably suggests Jet Airways' problems could have been solved by merging the two.

"Selling Air India is not going to solve its problems. We have to find another solution," he says.

He won't be drawn on specifics.

O'Brien is much more pointed in his critique of the Bharatiya Janata Party's self-serving rush to discuss one nation, one poll while not bothering to address many problems that came to the fore in the 2019 election.

Among them is the need for laws on campaign financing; a report this week showed that the BJP raised about 90 per cent of total corporate donations.

He also criticises the widespread use of fake news on social media as well as the ruling party circumventing Parliament by repeatedly using Ordinances in its first term.

In the ongoing Parliament session, O'Brien has tried to fill the breach left by the near demise of the Left parties and the ongoing crisis in the Congress.

The huge inroads the BJP made in the recent parliamentary elections in West Bengal and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's ill-tempered responses to the doctors' strike and BJP supporters goading her with cries of 'Jai Shri Ram' suggest the TMC has problems of its own.

But, in New Delhi, the party is measuring up as the de facto opposition to the BJP, in contrast to the Congress, which is preoccupied with its own Bollywood remake of Hamlet -- without Hamlet.

Rahul Gandhi's perennial existential crisis has become Congress's as well.

In recent weeks, O'Brien and parliamentary debutante Mahua Moitra have been punching well above the party's numbers.

Despite the Congress having nearly four times as many members in the Rajya Sabha as the TMC (48 to 13), O'Brien has been informally leading the coordination of Opposition parties, rallying other parties to demand a discussion on electoral reforms and to protest the government's disinvestment plans.

Recently, O'Brien held a press conference to discuss data on electoral funding released by election watchdog Association for Democratic Reforms.

The report showed that in 2016-17 and 2017-18, the BJP received Rs 969 crore in corporate donations, dwarfing the Rs 60 crore the Congress received and the Rs 2 crore the TMC received.

Money is a predictor of election success, O'Brien tells us, pointing to a US study that showed those who outspent their opponents in elections for the Congress and the Senate almost always win.

When the media largely ignored the news, he tweeted: "The 'national' newspapers/TV based out of Delhi urgently need spine implant surgery. Media owners, shame on you."

This is a theme O'Brien returns to repeatedly over breakfast, which he more than does justice to by eating six large idlis.

He briefly turns emotional: "I appeal to all media owners: You are running institutions of national heritage. You are part owners of our democracy."

Mostly, we receive a polished debunking of the BJP's record, seasoned with an ex-adman's flair for one-liners.

Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao is dismissed as a "scam scheme" with more than half of its budget being spent on advertising.

He says Rs 650 crore has been spent on it across India and contrasts this with the Rs 7,000 crore spent on Bengal's Kanyashree scheme to keep girls in school longer and delay their marriage.

The Bengal effort, which has also contributed to a drop in infant and maternal mortality rates, has received a United Nations award.

An ex-colleague living in Kolkata cites the scheme as an example of the party's good development work in villages that does not get the attention of the national media.

The ex-colleague also criticises the party's use of hoodlums in local politics in a manner that matches the record of the Left Front, which ruled the state with a thuggish fist between 1977 and 2011.

O'Brien is soon using the breakfast as a warm-up act for his then upcoming Rajya Sabha speech.

The quiz master's gift for detail is on display as the factoids fall fast and furious.

He rattles off how the vast majority of bills in Parliament's history made their way through the normal legislative process; in the past five years, four out of every 10 were ordinances.

In the context of the home ministry's energetic issuing of advisories to the Bengal government since the no holds barred election this summer, he says pointedly: "You gave us an advisory about the doctors' strike, but where is the advisory for Bihar when 150 children die of encephalitis?"

In an "unequal election", Facebook, he alleges, provided an "unequal playground" stacked in favour of the BJP.

In a response to reports of favouritism towards the ruling party, Facebook said on Newsclick: "An important part of our mission is equipping elected officials... with the tools needed to connect and engage with their communities."

O'Brien resorts to banal cliche when questioned about Banerjee's intemperate handling of the doctors' strike in Bengal last month.

After an uncharacteristic silence, he responds with "all's well that ends well".

It is an odd thing to say about a strike sparked by the attack on a young doctor who was in coma for a few days.

This hangs in the air between us like baffling nonsense till O'Brien regains his stride and emphasises the government's increase in funding for medical care and in seats at medical colleges over the years it has been in power.

Then he recites the 10 parameters on which Bengal leads the country, ranging from e-tendering to skills development to a programme for farmers.

He scribbles on the Saravana paper placemats a list of links he intends to send us.

We part ways in Kolkata style, which is to say, in long-drawn out fashion.

A rugby scrum of a queue is waiting to get in.

O'Brien threads his way past it and is still talking as child peddlers of pens mob him to force him to buy one.

A gauntlet of shoe-shine men who claim they have been waiting for us to finish breakfast are next.

O'Brien is deep in conversation with Archis as he gets into his car.

His parting shot is full of confidence: "Trinamool is match-on for 2021 (when it faces state elections in Bengal)."

On the evidence of the party's marshalling of an otherwise rudderless Opposition in the past few weeks, this is more than bravado.

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Rahul Jacob and Archis Mohan in New Delhi
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