FORMER UNION MINISTER Yashwant Sinha claims that West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has acquired a national image after her remarkable victory in the assembly elections. Sinha, who joined the Trinamool Congress early this year, says that based on her vast experience as chief minister of a major state and as a Union minister, she is a better qualified prime ministerial candidate than Narendra Modi was in 2014. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, Sinha asserts that the Congress has a central role to play in an anti-BJP grouping. He says only a strong Congress can provide the opposition parties with a fulcrum on which they can rest their unified campaign.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q/ A huge gap opened up between the government and the opposition in the monsoon session of Parliament.
A/ Disruption of Parliament is not new. In 2011, when the BJP was in opposition, the entire winter session was wiped out because we were demanding a JPC on 2G and the government would not concede. Ultimately, it did concede. My long parliamentary experience would suggest that the responsibility to run Parliament rests squarely on the government, and it must be accommodative of the opposition. In the just concluded session, the opposition demanded that we first discuss the Pegasus controversy. The government should have felt no difficulty in conceding the demand. But it was stubborn.
Q/ So, the government is to blame for the washout?
A/ The A.B. Vajpayee regime was very accommodative of the opposition. Not only did he speak to Sonia Gandhi and other opposition leaders on major issues affecting the country, but also in Parliament he had no difficulty in accommodating the wishes of the opposition.
This government has scant regard for the opposition or for Parliament. Bills are not referred to standing committees. And now Parliament itself is not functioning. The fulcrum of parliamentary democracy, which is Parliament in all its manifestations, has ceased to exist.
Q/ Was it a good strategy to disrupt Parliament over Pegasus and not discuss other pressing issues?
A/ Of course. It was not a bad strategy. Pegasus is a big issue. It affects the right to privacy of the entire population of India. We know governments eavesdrop, but Pegasus is a dangerous malware. If it has been used by the government, it is a very serious matter of national security and of privacy. If the government has not used it, [we want to know whether] a foreign power used it, which would be even more dangerous. The truth must be uncovered and placed before the people.
Q/ There are doubts if Pegasus would resonate with the people.
A/ Some people thought that Bofors would not resonate with the people. What have people got to do with Bofors guns, it was said. But it did resonate.
Q/ How can the opposition unity be taken forward?
A/ Opposition unity will require many issues to be sorted out. I have maintained that the opposition should not let the best be the enemy of good. So don’t wait for all the parties to come together. Let us make a beginning with whoever is willing, and if it resonates with the people, others will join.
Q/ The opposition is criticised for failing to take the joint protests beyond Lutyens’ Delhi.
A/ Ultimately, the opposition parties must hit the streets. The pro forma protests in Lutyens’ Delhi, marching from somewhere to Parliament, is not going to help. That may be important during the session. But going forward, the opposition will have to work out a campaign to tackle the government on the ground.
Q/ Can Mamata Banerjee be the face of the opposition against Narendra Modi?
A/ After the stunning Bengal victory, Mamata has acquired a national image. It appears to me that India is waiting for her. The timing, of course, is very important.
Mamata has the experience of running an important state. She spent 27 years in Delhi as a minister and a parliamentarian. When Modi became prime minister, he did not have any experience of government of India. So Mamata is many times better as a prime ministerial candidate than Modi was in 2014.
However, when parties come together, we will have to see what everybody agrees upon. My own recommendation is that the opposition should not fall into the BJP trap of declaring a prime ministerial candidate. We are a parliamentary democracy, not a presidential democracy.
Q/ Is opposition unity possible sans the Congress?
A/ I will dismiss the idea right away. When we talk of opposition unity, we are talking of various regional parties. However weak the Congress might have become, it is still the only other national party. So, the Congress not only has to join the coalition of parties, it must be at the centre of it. At the same time, it is the responsibility of the Congress leadership to strengthen the party. A weak Congress will not be able to provide the fulcrum that the opposition unity needs.
Q/ Sushmita Dev has recently joined the Trinamool Congress. Will that not hurt your equations with the Congress?
A/ These things go on. The Congress contested elections in West Bengal against the Trinamool in alliance with the left. It is not that we are in government together and are poaching their members. We are two separate parties.
Q/ So, there are inbuilt differences in the opposition space.
A/ When we talk about parties coming together, the most important thing is a common programme. There cannot be opposition unity without a convincing common programme to take India forward.
Q/ What issues will be important in challenging Modi in 2024?
A/ In the run-up to the 2014 elections, corruption had already become a major issue. Modi only encashed it. My own feeling is that the 2024 elections will also be contested on one single overriding issue. But I can’t say today what that issue will be. It could be corruption; it could be Pegasus. Suppose some devastating revelations were to come out in Rafale, won’t it affect the people?
Q/ How do you look at the BJP’s thrust on OBC matters?
A/ It will not wash. Who has done more for OBCs than V.P. Singh? What happened to the Janata Dal in the 1991 elections? I used to work with Karpuri Thakur as his principal secretary in Bihar. He was the pioneer in bringing OBC reservation. But he lost. Karpuri Thakur losing Bihar and V.P. Singh losing India are prime examples that people will be happy for the time being, but may not vote for you. Without jobs, reservation has no meaning.
Q/ How do you view the initiative shown by Rahul Gandhi in the Parliament session?
A/ It is a very welcome development. I would expect him to do much more. A strengthened Congress must be at the centre of opposition unity.