November 20, 2014

The Big Apple's barometer


My wife lives in New York, and, over the years, I have got to know the city well. It is a useful barometer to judge the health of the world and of the American mood and economy. A visit in the winter of 2008-09, over the New Year and just weeks after the Lehman Brothers crash, is still in my memory. It had been only a few months since my previous visit, but the financial crisis had taken its toll. It was as if I were walking through another country. New Yorkers had lost that spring in their step.

I was in New York for a week this October and spent a lot of time thinking about the 2008-09 visit. The buzz and the atmosphere was quite a contrast to those times. It told me the US economy was recovering, that spring was back in the step—but there were some caveats.

In the US, everything is a marketing opportunity, even an economic crisis. In early 2009, I began to notice signs outside restaurants offering 'Recession Lunch', a discounted meal aimed at attracting customers who were staying away. At least two of five restaurants made such offers. Today, the 'Recession Lunch' signs have vanished. Normalcy is returning to the eating-out industry.

Five years ago, my wife's house help, a Colombian lady, began to bring her husband to the apartment on her weekly cleaning mission. He used to work for a moving and packing firm, but it had more or less shut down. There was no business. Bored and desolate, he accompanied his wife to keep himself occupied. We do not see the husband anymore. He is back at work with the same moving and packing company; the US economy is moving again, literally.

In 2008, I had spent long hours consoling a close friend who had lost his job at Lehman Brothers. He was distraught, middle-aged and out of job, with no sign of recovery. In the next 15 months, he changed four jobs. Today, he is settled into another job with a leading investment bank. The stability is back, so is the pay-cheque and the bonuses, even if these are not as generous as in the old days. Nevertheless, my friend works very long hours; he is out of the house from 7am to 9pm. He tells me the fear of losing another job and of another collapse gives him nightmares.

In 2008-09, I used to see too many 'For Sale' signs outside houses and properties. The housing market had plummeted. There was panic in the mortgage industry and distress sales were very common. Today, there are far fewer such signs. The number of distress sales has fallen as people are regaining control of their lives.

Ironically, they may not actually be buying homes. Anecdotal evidence in New York would suggest that even those people who can afford to put down a decent mortgage are preferring caution and staying on rent. There is apprehension of committing to a large mortgage and being sucked into another debt trap.

I am no economist. These are stray observations and pieces of information picked up during conversations. As such, my view is decidedly limited. Yet, a recovery is definitely on course in America. But, that sense of anxiety has still not gone away. For an entire generation of Americans, the survivors of September 2008, it may never.










Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

November 12, 2014

FDI in Insurance Bill? No, not so easy.


Few noticed but a remarkable and potentially far-reaching event happened late on Tuesday evening. A crucial meeting of the Parliamentary Select Committee on the Insurance Bill, scheduled for Wednesday, November 12, suddenly got called off. Somewhere, at some point, the government lost its nerve.

The Insurance Bill has an interesting history for the BJP. It sought to bulldoze it through Parliament in the Budget Session so that the prime minister had a lollypop to carry to America. The opposition, primarily the Trinamool Congress, the CPI(M), which have been consistent critics of the Insurance Bill, and the Congress and JDU, succeeded in checking the advance of the Bill, arresting the BJP’s unseemly hurry and taking the Bill to a select committee.

The government’s orders to BJP members of the select committee were to rush through with proceedings and get the Bill ready for the Winter Session, which begins on November 24. I’m a member of the select committee. We’ve already done about 10 meetings and there was an important one coming up on Wednesday. I can’t say more as I am not at liberty to reveal the workings of the select committee.

Meanwhile, jumping the gun and seeking to anticipate the recommendations of the select committee, members of this government have addressed economic conclaves and given assurances that the Insurance Bill will be passed in the Winter Session of Parliament.

But will it? The clue lies in the reason the meeting was cancelled. The BJP had three members in the 15-MP select committee: the chairperson, Chandan Mitra, and J.P. Naddaand Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. The chairperson can vote only in case of a tie.

On Sunday, Nadda and Naqvi were made members of the Union ministry. With this they ceased to be members of the select committee. Hence the panicky cancellation of Wednesday’s meeting.

Two new members of the select committee will need to be appointed by the Rajya Sabha. This can only happen sometime after the House meets on November 24. Then the two new members will join the 13 previous members in debating and discussing the Insurance Bill. It is very unlikely this will conclude before Parliament ends the Winter Session on the eve of Christmas.

What then becomes of the government’s resolve to pass the Insurance Bill? My guess: Parliament will not be voting on the Insurance Bill this year. As for 2015, that’s another year and another battle. We’ll fight it when it comes.










Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

November 03, 2014

Brand Equity Quiz being put to bed


Those were the days of telephone operators. So Binny Kapur, the charming lady with the husky voice and the loud lipstick, my colleague for many years at Ogilvy, Kolkata, put the call through. It was Jug Suraiya, journalist, friend and spouse of my former boss, who had recently moved to Delhi. Jug had figured The Statesman was a ship rapidly sinking into the Hooghly and had opted to board the cruise liner docked in Delhi, The Times of India.

He came straight to the issue. “Derek, these TOI folks, actually The Economic Times team in Bangalore, have asked me to put together an advertising and marketing quiz for ad agencies in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai,” Jug deadpanned on the trunk call. “Bunny [Jug’s wife] and I told them point blank: Not me. Get in touch with this chap, my friend, Derek O’Brien in Kolkata. He’s your man… Oh and by the way, not free…  Charge the blighters your full fee.” That last bit was added almost in glee.

A few weeks, a couple of letters and half a dozen phone calls later we were all set to do the “Ad and Marketing Quiz” in the three southern cities. Dates were frozen: Chennai, okay. Hyderabad, okay… Oops. The date for the preliminary round in Bangalore clashed with the North Star Quiz (remember it?) I was committed to doing in another city.

Not a problem. The ET folks were comfortable with my father, Neil O’Brien, handling the opening day in Bangalore. The fees were fixed too: Rs 5,000 per show. (No, that’s not a typo. Those were my rates for a quiz show back in 1991!) As seasoned quizzers and a generation of corporate executives would have guessed by now, this is how the Brand Equity Quiz started.

Life has changed enormously in these past 23 years. Three years ago, I took a conscious decision to move away from live quiz shows. I had simply too much on my plate. So while I’m very involved in strategising, question setting, show design and backroom operations, the 2,400 live shows Derek O’Brien & Associates does every year are conducted by my able colleagues. The one quiz event for which I made an exception was the Brand Equity Quiz. This was special, it was very dear to my heart.

Now, close to its 25th birthday, the Brand Equity Quiz is being put to bed. It’s the company’s decision and I respect it. I can’t do the Brand Equity Quiz without Economic Times and Economic Times has promised it will not attempt to revive it without me. So maybe one day we’ll be back. For the moment, it’s time to say goodbye – and thank you for the memories.










Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

October 31, 2014

Electoral Reality of Bengal versus The BJP Hype


Ever the master of hype, the BJP is feeding news channels in Delhi that it is a “big force” in West Bengal. Innocent of ground realities in West Bengal, these channels are dutifully reporting this joke as a fact. What is the reality? Consider the two recent assembly by-elections in West Bengal, Chowringhee and Basirhat South. These took place in September and tested the limits of the BJP’s advance in the state.

When I was growing up, it was often said that Chowringhee was one of the Congress’ safest seats in the country. Located in the heart of Kolkata, it represented and still represents the urban core of our cosmopolitan state capital. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the Congress led in the Chowringhee segment with 35,998 votes. Trinamool was close behind with 34,440 votes, the BJP had 29,503 and the CPI(M) 10,796.

The by-election numbers throw up an interesting contrast. The CPI(M) has declined still more, to 8,890 votes and finished fourth again. The Congress has slipped badly and declined to 23,317 votes, a loss of 12,600 votes or about 35 per cent of its Lok Sabha tally. The BJP has slipped to reach 23,984 votes and finish second. Trinamool ran away with the seat, getting 38,328 votes.

How Chowringhee voted is an indicator of the continued popularity of Mamata Banerjee and Trinamool in urban areas, particularly in the context of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation election of summer 2015. It put paid to the BJP’s hopes of a spectacular show in the city. The party had invested a lot of hopes on Chowringhee. Amit Shah, BJP national president, had even cancelled a meeting in north Bengal to come for a canvassing event in Chowringhee.

In the end, it wasn’t enough. Not even the smear campaign run by a section of the media could shake the popular trust that Mamata Banerjee enjoys. In fact, it may have worked to her advantage.

Basirhat South too has not been a traditional Trinamool seat. It was won by a CPI(M) candidate in 2011. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP lost in the overall parliamentary constituency but led in the Basirhat South assembly segment by 32,000 votes. When the CPI(M) MLA died, and a by-election resulted, political analysts were predicting a BJP-CPI(M) fight.

We kept a low profile and picked Dipendu Biswas, a popular local boy and former captain of India’s football team, as our candidate. He campaigned hard and reduced the BJP’s lead to a mere 1,700 votes. The CPI(M), which had won the seat in 2011, ended up third. Seeing the response to Dipendu Biswas, in a typically emotional reaction Mamatadi announced him as Trinamool candidate for the 2016 assembly election. I must point out here that the winning BJP nominee was gracious in acknowledging Trinamool’s improved performance and our ability to cut the margin.

All in all, the battle for the opposition space is between the CPI(M) and the BJP. The 2016 West Bengal election has only one frontrunner: Trinamool. As for the television channels in Delhi, they can continue living in cloud-cuckoo land.










Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

October 28, 2014

The Black Money Fiasco


... The BJP has made a laughing stock of itself.

The higher they rise, the harder they fall. Narendra Modi’s crack communication strategy, which served him so well in the past few years and hyped and exaggerated his achievements in Gujarat to an extraordinary degree before the 2014 Lok Sabha election, suddenly seems to have deserted him.

Like Karna, his government cannot seem to recall the crucial mantras when it needs them most. With the black money fiasco, the government, so cocky and hubristic till the other day, has made a laughing stock of itself.

By taking over the black money case from the Finance Ministry and saying it will directly monitor the investigations, the Supreme Court has expressed a deep lack of confidence in the Modi regime. This has only confirmed that the government was not and is not serious about unearthing the truth about illegal funds lying abroad.

Note the government’s actions in the past few days. It began by mimicking its predecessor, the discredited UPA government, and refusing to release the names shared by foreign governments and agencies. Its excuse was exactly that of the previous government, an excuse the BJP had pooh-poohed while in opposition.

Then it said it would “leak” names, following that it said it would “share” some names. What finally appeared were three names of inconsequential businesspersons – with very little money in their bank accounts.Between the Congress and the BJP, the black money account-holders have been given ample time to withdraw their money and park it elsewhere.

Meanwhile the government began leaking names of rival politicians to “friendly journalists”, again following the very skulduggery and cloak-and-dagger use of the media that Modi had criticised with such venom and mocked as part of the so-called “Delhi culture”. Had the Supreme Court not come down so hard, in the coming weeks, more names would have been “revealed” to more “elite journalists” and “pseudo-secular news channels”. And chargesheets and convictions, or actual return of black money (promised in 100 days)? You thought the BJP was serious?

Read the feedback on Twitter. Modi’s biggest backers are cursing his government. What a communication and perception mess. And so quickly.











Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

October 16, 2014

Blessing the right to love: Pope Francis’ revolutionary attempts

[This article was carried by The Times Of India | Thursday, October 16, 2014]


I don’t discuss religion or wear it on my sleeve. It’s not part of my usual social interaction or professional and friendship choices. I’ve been married twice, both times to Hindus. Having said that, i’m a fairly devout Catholic.

I practise my religion in my own quiet way — going to Church every Sunday, praying for a minute in the morning and a minute at night, saying grace before and after meals, and fasting, as the devout do, on two days in the year: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

My religion has been unobtrusive and has never interfered in my daily life. Yet, i must confess three things about the Catholic Church have troubled me. First, it makes no allowance for the breakdown of a marriage, and for irreconcilable differences to come up in a couple. This is unrealistic. A divorced person cannot take communion in Church. Neither can the child of a divorced person or a live-in couple be baptised. The full blessing of the Church is denied to them.

Second, the Church’s views on abortion and contraception are too extreme. Finally, the Church’s position on gay and lesbian people has similarly been unfair, at least to my mind.

If these issues have troubled me, it is not because i see myself as any sort of a rebel. Rather they seem to contravene the freedom and liberty that Christ preached and that his work was all about. The Bible, at least the Bible as i was taught it by my grandmother years ago, tells us only the Lord can judge people. People cannot judge people.

For years i kept my opinions to myself, sharing them with only a few friends and family members but unwilling to rock the boat within the broader Catholic community. Now i find courage to do so from none else but the leader of the Catholic Church, the Pope himself.

In September, Pope Francis presided over an extraordinary wedding event in the Vatican. The 20 couples who got married by him included divorcees, live-in couples and out-of-wedlock parents. For me it was a very emotional and moving message from the Pope.

The Pope has summoned an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which is currently meeting in Rome. This is just the third such convening of the Synod in 50 years and it is discussing the Church’s attitude towards the modern family. The Vatican has released a preliminary document calling for the Church to welcome and accept those who have divorced and their children, as well as gay people and unmarried couples.

What Pope Francis is attempting is revolutionary. It is also essential, i feel, for the Church’s renewal and continued relevance to the millions who cherish it, and cherish an association with it, but cannot get themselves to agree with all its doctrinal principles. Indeed, other Christian orders have been quicker to coordinate their faith with modern lives and mores and the Catholic Church is making up for lost time.

There is a feeling that the Church is in a moment of dramatic transition, not unknown in its history but still worth taking note of. Pope Francis himself is from Argentina, the first Pope from the southern hemisphere and the first non-European Pope since the middle of the 8th century. In the years to come efforts of Pope Francis and the current Synod, as and when these reach fruition, could be considered even more far-reaching than deliberations of the Second Vatican Council, which began in 1962 and explored the relationship of the Church with the contemporary world.

It is useful to remember that the First Vatican Council had been summoned as far back as 1868 and for a century, the Church had neither approached nor addressed issues of renewal. Of the many changes Vatican II (as the Second Vatican Council came to be known) led to, the most important was the legitimisation of local and regional languages. It came to be belatedly recognised that all Catholics were no longer Latin speaking and not even European or aspiring to speak a classical European language.

Rather they were as diverse as human society — happy to follow their faith, worship as part of the Catholic Church, and still remain true to the mainstay culture and traditions of their society and country. In the larger scheme, Vatican II acknowledged that the days of European missionaries turning up in a distant land, disembarking from a boat, and preaching an alien, European way of life, had long ended.

If the Catholic faith had to survive, it had to make sense to adherents in their local contexts. In any case, Catho-lic communities such as those in Kerala are far older than European Catholicism.

I live in hope that the ongoing Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops will bring the Church into conformity with 21st century society and the human instinct for individual freedom and choice as much as — or even to a greater extent than — Vatican II did. Vatican II recognised geographical and linguistic diversity. Today, the time has come to recognise and validate social and familial diversity.

That is why, this Sunday morning, when I go to Church, i will say a special prayer for the Pope and the Synod. The Lord bless them.










Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

[This article was carried by The Times Of India | Thursday, October 16, 2014]

October 08, 2014

Kolkata diaspora and its delusions


1. Did the writer spend a significant time of his or her early and formative years in Kolkata?

2. Was the writer educated in Kolkata in one of the city’s best-known and elite institutions of learning?

3. Is the writer an exile from Kolkata and West Bengal, pushed out during the wasted years of Communist rule (1977-2011) or in the tumult that immediately preceded it?

4. Is the writer now a distinguished professional, usually in the media, academia, literature or a related field?


The four questions above comprise my Kolkata Diaspora Test. If the answers to three of the four questions are “Yes”, I tend to take what the writer has put down – and it is usually a put down – about contemporary Kolkata with a bucketful of salt.

There is a type of person who once lived in Kolkata, now visits it for 10 days in a year – generally in the Christmas season and the final week of December – but travels the world parading himself or herself as a specialist on not just Kolkata as it once was but Kolkata as it still is and Kolkata as it must always be.

More often than not the person has no clue about contemporary reality in the city or of the immediate issue – controversy, protest, achievement, anything – that is exercising the city. Yet, the writer will happily churn out a series of indignant articles, essays or at least tweets.

It is not that these people are not talented or that I don’t respect them in another context. The best example I can think of is Swapan Dasgupta, the columnist in Delhi and a forceful voice for right-wing political opinion. I invariably disagree with Swapan and his politics but do admire his felicity of prose, his cogency of argument and his scholarship. Not everybody is this engaging. There are some also-rans in the Kolkata diaspora who do nothing but troll 24/7.

What is common to many of these folk is a complete absence of informed perspective about today’s Kolkata. Their views are shaped by what the afternoon copy of The Telegraph tells them or what headlines Anandabazar Patrika, in its whimsical and oh-so-dynamic wisdom, has chosen that morning.

If one were to believe a couple of tendentious papers and the diaspora intelligentsia that seems to be an important target audience for these papers, Kolkata is as broken as Berlin in 1945, there is an Afghanistan-style civil war on in West Bengal, and Amit Shah is about to come riding on a white horse to sweep the 2016 election. It is a make-believe world that exists largely because of Twitter and Facebook, and is exaggerated and magnified by re-tweets and Facebook 'likes'.

A recent episode that worked on similar lines was the unrest in Jadavpur University, where initial student anger, shaped by the perception of an incident, was deftly exploited. The facts of the case have come out now and the truth has emerged. It is very different from the horrific and morbid pictures that were being painted.

It is worth noting that social media unwittingly fanned the fires. This is especially so since many JU alumni, who are following fine careers in other cities and other countries, conflated news from the campus with happy memories of the idealism of their student days. They took strident positions – with Facebook posts and tweets and re-tweets – without knowing the situation on the ground.

Those raising revolutionary slogans on Facebook and Twitter, from distant locations in Gurgaon or the West Coast of America, need to embrace a few lessons. Such emotionalism from afar, such a sometimes misleading mix of nostalgia, the play of memory and political prejudice, can lead to perfectly rational people adopting outlandish stances.

This happens to so many Kolkata diaspora intellectuals, who answer “Yes” to at least three of the four questions posed at the beginning of my blog. It’s sad.










Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

September 16, 2014

Bengal Bypolls: Of frontrunners, crow and whine.


I haven’t been following the set of by-elections in different states and have no real inferences to draw from results elsewhere. My focus has been very much on West Bengal, which saw two assembly by-elections: Chowringhee and Basirhat South.

When I was growing up, it was often said that Chowringhee was one of the Congress’ safest seats in the country. Located in the heart of Kolkata, it represented and still represents the urban core of our cosmopolitan state capital. In the May 2014 Lok Sabha election, the Congress led in the Chowringhee segment with 35,998 votes. Trinamool was close behind with 34,440 votes, the BJP had 29,500 and the CPI(M) 10,000.

The by-election numbers today throw up an interesting contrast. The CPI(M) has declined still more, to 8,890 votes and finished fourth again. The Congress has slipped badly and declined to 23,317 votes, a loss of 7,000 votes or about 25 per cent of its Lok Sabha tally. The BJP has slipped to reach 23,984 votes and finish second. Trinamool ran away with the seat, getting 38,328 votes.

How Chowringhee voted is an indicator of the continued popularity of Mamata Banerjee and Trinamool in urban areas, particularly in the context of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation election of Summer 2015. It put paid to the BJP’s hopes of a spectacular show in the city. The party had invested a lot of hopes on Chowringhee. Amit Shah, BJP national president, had even cancelled a meeting in north Bengal to come for a canvassing event in Chowringhee.

In the end, it wasn’t enough. Not even the smear campaign run by a section of the media could shake the popular trust that Mamata Banerjee enjoys. In fact, it may have worked to her advantage.

Basirhat South too has not been a traditional Trinamool seat. It was won by a CPI(M) candidate in 2011. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP lost in the overall parliamentary constituency but led in the Basirhat South assembly segment by 32,000 votes. When the CPI(M) MLA died, and a by-election resulted, political analysts were predicting a BJP-CPI(M) fight.

We kept a low profile and picked Dipendu Biswas, a popular local boy and former captain of India’s football team, as our candidate. He campaigned hard and reduced the BJP’s lead of 32,000 to a mere 1,700 votes. The CPI(M), which had won the seat in 2011, ended up third. Seeing the response to Dipendu Biswas, in a typically emotional reaction the party announced him as Trinamool candidate for the 2016 assembly election. I must point out here that the winning BJP nominee was gracious in acknowledging Trinamool’s improved performance and our ability to cut the margin.

All in all, there is now only a battle for the opposition space in Bengal. The 2016 West Bengal election has only one frontrunner: Trinamool. As for some media groups, they can eat crow. It would go well with their whine.










Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

August 29, 2014

The heart and soul of Derek O’Brien & Associates...


Today’s blog is a non-political one and dedicated to a bunch of fine men and women – my 60 colleagues at Derek O’Brien & Associates. They are the heart and soul of my company and have seen it through 25 years of ups and downs, and even a name change!

In the past few days, as political commitments and Parliament have kept me busy, my colleagues have been hard at work. They run 2,500 preliminary events at 1,200 schools across 45 cities for two of our flagship projects: the Vodafone Derek’s Faster, Smarter, Better Challenge and Derek’s YiPPee! Challenge in association with Oxford Bookstore.

Both are knowledge-based shows that test general awareness, soft skills, communication and team-building capabilities and generally seek to equip young boys and girls for the contemporary world. The first of these events is for senior children – classes VIII-XII. The second is for middle-school children – classes V-VII. In February 2015, I will conduct the final rounds of these events.

In the coming weeks, we will also be entering the final stages of the Bournvita Quiz Contest (BQC). An old Indian tradition, which began as a radio programme before migrating to television, the BQC has evolved over the years. The ground-level events are over, having been conducted by my colleagues in 80 cities – who have also researched and set the questions, with constant interaction with me.

In October, we will shoot the 14-episode Tamil version of the finals of the BQC for schools in Tamil Nadu. To be broadcast on Sun TV, this is a challenge for me as my Tamil is very basic. Fortunately, my co-anchor Nisha Krishnan, is an accomplished young lady who helps me out.

After that, we move to the all-India BQC. This year the BQC is set to make a quantum leap. From radio to television was an orbital jump; in 2014, another dramatic change, a world first (I think) awaits it. Do watch out for it. Hopefully my colleagues (with some help from me) will not let you down.










Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

August 27, 2014

Money is limited, so should a bullet train be a priority?


One of the blockbuster announcements of this year’s Railway Budget was the bullet train. To be constructed with international collaboration, the bullet train – expected to run at 250 or 300 kmh – will operate in the Mumbai-Ahmedabad route.

I have no fundamental opposition to high-speed or bullet trains. Indeed, they fascinate me and would be very welcome at some point. The doubt in my mind is: have we reached that point? Indian Railways desperately need money for upgrade and modernisation. Money is limited, so should a bullet train be a priority?

The Railway Budget also makes mention of six freight corridors. To my mind, these corridors, rather than a bullet train, should obsess the Railway Minister. There are several reasons why. For a start, building a bullet train line will cost Rs 150-200 crore per km. Building a dedicated freight corridor will cost a tenth of that.

In the absence of dedicated freight corridors, goods and passenger trains share the same tracks. Obviously passenger trains get priority, and this delays freight. In recent years, India’s road and highway network has improved, as have trucks available in the country. This has led to a transfer of freight, from railway to road.

Twenty years ago, 60 per cent of all freight in India was moved by rail. Today it is 31 per cent. The volume of freight being carried by Indian Railways is growing by 4.8 per cent a year, so the minister told us in his Budget speech. Other than in the past two years, the overall economy has grown much, much faster. It would follow that overall freight is also growing much faster. As such, it is crucial for the well-being and the bottom line of Indian Railways to take this 4.8 per cent growth figure to six or seven per cent and get a greater slice of the freight market.

Take two examples. Each year, Food Corporation of India moves 250 million tonnes of food around the country. The share of Indian Railways is only 50 million tonnes. Similarly, 290 million tonnes of cement moves from one part of India to another. Just 90 million tonnes use trains.

Why is this happening? Part of the reason rail cannot compete with road is capacity. If a customer wants to book a consignment of 1,000-1,500 tonnes, rail doesn’t provide an easy solution. Each railway wagon has a capacity of 60 tonnes and 10 wagons means 600 tonnes.

When Mamata Banerjee was the railway minister, this predicament was the subject of deep study. Merit was seen in a concept already in operation in the Konkan Railway: RORO or roll on-roll off. This involved a road-railer model, where a steel wheel could also be used as a pneumatic tyre. It allowed for not a competition between rail and road but a partnership, with one feeding on the strengths of the other.

The RORO model needs to be pilot tested elsewhere. It can revolutionise Indian Railways much faster than the bullet train will.










Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

August 07, 2014

The UPSC exam: Looking for a long term solution


Wednesday saw a lively discussion in Parliament on the Civil Services Examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC). The issue is out on the streets, with candidates, particularly from Hindi-speaking states, protesting about the format of the preliminary examination. They want the removal of the English language comprehension test and of the Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT), which tests soft skills such as communication and problem solving.

In a knee-jerk reaction, the government has dropped the English language comprehension component, but this hasn’t solved the problem. The controversy is a complex one, especially in a country of such linguistic diversity and divergence in English language use. It follows that the solution should be nuanced as well. A sledgehammer approach – drop this paper, cut out that language – will not do.

Candidates who appear for the Civil Services Examination take two general studies papers at the preliminary level. They can take these in Hindi or English. These are multiple-choice tests of basic general knowledge, the CSAT, and till 2013, the English comprehension section (“Where do you place a handkerchief? In (a) a shoe; (b) a pocket...” and so on).

Those who qualify for the main examination, sit nine additional papers. Of these two are qualifying papers – English and one modern Indian language. The English paper is worth 300 marks. Even if the candidates avoid the English test at the preliminary stage, they cannot avoid it when it comes to the main examination.

The main examination also tests the candidates in four general studies papers and two papers in any one specialised subject – it could range from physics to economics. These subject papers can be taken in not just English or Hindi but a variety of Indian languages.

Following this, those who qualify from the main examination are interviewed. Successful candidates are then trained for about two years. The shortest training period is for the Indian Revenue Service (18 months) and the longest for the Indian Foreign Service (three years, including foreign language training).

What is Trinamool’s solution? India’s variety of languages and the fact that many good, suitable civil service candidates may not come from English-speaking families is a reality. On the other hand, the ability to use English in working life, whether in government or the private sector, is also a reality.

As such, we have four suggestions:

Just like the optional subject papers in the main examination can be answered in any one of many Indian languages listed in the Eighth Schedule, there should be – from 2015 – provision for translation of the preliminary examination papers as well. Candidates should be able to appear for the two papers in their mother tongue or the language of their choice, not just English or Hindi.

CSAT should not be summarily rejected or blindly defended. It has its uses in today’s world and needs to be debated by all stakeholders – candidates, academics, public administration specialists, former civil servants, even human resource consultants from the private sector.

The English comprehension test at the preliminary stage should be permanently dropped, as the government has already agreed to do for this year. The 300-mark English paper at the main examination stage should and must be retained.

Successful candidates should have English language training, particularly spoken English training, as part of their first-year programme. They should be imparted 300 hours of spoken English training over 12 months, with 100 hours coming in the first three months. This is what language specialists recommend for non-native speakers.

In this regard, I would like to point out Mamata Banerjee, when she was railway minister, made sure Indian Railway recruitment examinations were conducted in all languages of the Eighth Schedule. As West Bengal chief minister, she has adopted this inclusive policy when it comes to the State Public Service Commission examinations. Even OlChiki, the language of the Santhali tribal people, has been brought into the examination process, to increase the social base of government recruitment.

Language is a sensitive issue in our country. In some states, there are apprehensions about English. In other states, there are apprehensions about Hindi. As such, this matter needs to be tackled with deft. However, it is also important for those in the upper echelons of government, or any job, really, to be conversant with English. Rightly or wrongly, it is the language much of the world uses.










Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

August 01, 2014

Why Trinamool opposes FDI in insurance


... And for the Congress, it is time to stand up and be counted.

In opposing the Insurance Bill in Parliament, the Trinamool Congress is not being difficult, it is being consistent. We have been clear about the dangers and risks of FDI in insurance and pensions – the two sectors go together – for ever since I can remember. Our manifesto and political platform was categorical on this when we lost elections – 2004 or 2006 – as well as when we won elections: 2009, 2011, 2014.

Why do we oppose FDI in insurance? Insurance and pensions are crucial for the well-being of middle-class families. Such modes of savings are the ultimate nest egg for ordinary people. Ideally, the funds for these should be invested in mechanisms that have sovereign guarantees – government bonds, municipal bonds, fixed deposits and the like.

International insurance companies prefer investing in the stock market and in mutual funds, and in a sense gambling. When things go right, such a process can lead to windfall gains – and fat bonuses for the executives of the international insurance companies. When things go wrong, families and hard-working individuals will see their money crumble.

The financial collapse in the United States and the West in 2008 is a warning for us. An entire generation of Americans will have to postpone retirement and keep working till well into their seventies to repay their debts and pay for the recklessness of financial-services buccaneers. Do we want this scare scenario repeated in India? That is why Trinamool blocked the opening of insurance to foreign players even when our party was part of the UPA II government.

The BJP government says the move to push up FDI in insurance companies from 26 to 49 per cent is a simple one and entails no changes other than raising the cap in foreign holding. This is not quite true. Trinamool’s concern is about two clauses that seem to be new in this Bill.

One, it includes FII – or portfolio investment, hot money, which enters and exits the country at will, and without a long-term stake – in the 49 per cent. Two, it sets the stage for disinvestment and loosening of government holding in public-sector general insurance companies. These companies are the mainstay of the savings plans of middle-class Indians. Why are we determined to jeopardise all this?

Trinamool and the Left Front are diametrically opposed to each other in most spheres. Admittedly, on this narrow score – the matter of FDI in insurance and the two principal grievances we have – the two political groups have similar apprehensions. So do many in the BJP, though they are afraid to say it openly. As for the Congress, it is time for it to stand up and be counted.











Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

July 27, 2014

AB(Lo)P... And the award goes to...


West Bengal’s politics offers a strange predicament these days. The opposition space is so empty, even the biggest media company in the state is competing for it. The CPI(M) has collapsed. The Congress is a rump, limited to 1.5 districts. The BJP is overhyping its 17 per cent vote share in the recent Lok Sabha election, which was an improved performance but way behind the Trinamool Congress’ 40 per cent.

Into this vacuum has stepped the Ananda Bazar Patrika (ABP) Group, which publishes the Bengali-language newspaper it is named for as well as The Telegraph (English language) and runs news television channels. A news media organisation is many things. It is a commercial entity, which needs to make enough money to sustain itself. It is also a guardian of public interest, a promoter of ideas and policies it believes in, and a monitor of the government. These are high-minded tasks. Sometimes, in our trivia-driven, TRP-chasing, prime-time folk theatre days, they are conveniently forgotten. Sometimes, even supposedly serious newspapers and media editors become nit-picking gadabouts.

When this happens, criticism of a government does not follow reason – it simply seeks a reason. As such, the ABP Group is running a campaign against the West Bengal government for instituting and giving away awards to eminent citizens and achievers of the state, in various fields. The fields the West Bengal government recognises achievers in range from medicine to teaching, from culture to sport (including from non-glamorous sports). Even media-persons are applauded for a distinguished career.

Other states, as well as the Central government, routinely give similar awards. It is considered one of the mandates of a government, but it is only in West Bengal that the largest media house treats it as a sin. It excoriates the chief minister, accusing her of wasting money and neglecting those in poverty.

Is this an “either-or” situation? Should a government focus on poverty uplift and social development to the exclusion of recognising cultural benchmarks and achievers who are public models? If it should, can one extend this logic to newspapers and media houses.

Should they be asked to reduce (or nullify) their budget for social-butterfly stories, page 3 parties and film-industry gossip and pay for more journalists to cover the problems of rural Bengal? Should be asked to stop sending journalists on expensive trips to England to cover a cricket series and send the same reporters by train to Birbhum, to pluck an example, to cover a district sports tournament?

ABP gives a whole host of awards itself. Here’s an incomplete list:

• Ananda Puruskar, Suresh Chandra Majumdar Award and Prafulla Sarkar Award – for literature.

• Sera Bangali – for Bengali achievers in music, films, art, politics, science, literature.

• The Telegraph School Awards for Excellence

• Best City Awards 2014 – organised by ABP News

• Sananda Tilottama – a model hunt for fresh faces

• Snowcem-Anandabazar Sharad Arghya – Durga Puja Awards

• ABP Ananda Puja Samman – Durga Puja Awards

Telegraph Food Guide Awards – honouring the best eateries in Kolkata

• Unish Kuri Fresh Face – another model hunt for fresh faces

• ABP Majha Sanman Puruskar – for outstanding Maharashtrians

• ABP News National Education Awards

• Ebela Ami Amar Moto Samman Award – for social work


Until 2013, Businessworld magazine was owned by the ABP Group. It gave away the Businessworld Best Bank Awards and the Businessworld Young Entrepreneur Awards.

Could the money used for these awards – as prize money as to organise gala award functions – not have been spent on poverty alleviation, helping the downtrodden, putting in place a charity or CSR framework, or donated to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund or the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund?

Is there a hypocrisy and a contradiction here? Or do the ABP Group and its editors believe of themselves, to borrow Boy George’s lyrics: “I’m a man without conviction / I’m a man who doesn't know / How to sell a contradiction / You come and go / You come and go...”

The media has a karma. It is not to be chameleonic.










Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

July 14, 2014

The TVfication of Parliament?


Something new has arrived in the Lok Sabha. Two large screens allow members to see and hear other speakers during a debate in the House. No longer do MPs have to turn their heads to watch a speaker behind them or crane their necks to catch a glimpse of someone or something. Quite like cricketers watching a re-play on the giant screen in a stadium, MPs can now see the action from a better angle.

To me this completes the audio-visual medium’s capture of politics – or should it be the other way round? I’m being facetious. In fact I’ve written to the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha to introduce similar screens in the Upper House as well. They will prove to be useful and convenient.

The screens and their need as well as impact have been with me for the past two days. I’ve been preparing to speak in the debate on the Railway Budget. My 30 minutes will come on Tuesday, July 15. (Update as on Sunday, July 20: The discussion on the Railway Budget was not taken up in the Rajya Sabha last week. Now, hope to speak on July 22.) Later in the week, a colleague will speak on the General Budget. He too must be working hard, poring over papers, perusing the finer details to find ideas and hidden gems and pitfalls and discussion points. That’s exactly what I’ve been doing since Friday. As a result, I’ve studiously avoided all television debates on the two Budgets.

My challenge – and the challenge of so many other MPs – will be to say something new and different, innovative and insightful, and something that has not already been said. After all, from a society that was famously slow to react, we have become a polity that is hyper-reactive.

Consider what I mean.Within minutes of the Budget, the first reactions and sound bites came. Within an hour, social media was abuzz with official responses on Twitter and Facebook. Indeed, Mamata Banerjee was among the first to put her thoughts on Facebook. Within two or three hours, after we discussed the Budget speech internally - as was the case with other parties no doubt – there came longer pieces-to-camera and crisper, more meaningful sound bites that articulated considered party positions.

By the evening, there were the prime time, pre-prime time and post-prime time shows. Some of these were replicated the following day, before the media cavalcade moved on to another subject, another controversy, another piece of “breaking news”. By then so much had been said on the Rail Budget and General Budget. By then, if you actually bothered reading the voluminous papers of the Budget, nothing had been said on the Budget.

The parliamentary debate is almost like a delayed climax. It is where thought will go into the Budget discussion. In our media-driven times, it is also a bit of an afterthought.

Or am I being too cynical?










Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

July 12, 2014

Crib Deaths: From medicine to society and sociology



News about the deaths of seven new-borns in a hospital in Malda, north Bengal, left me depressed. I phoned an old friend, Dr Tridib Banerjee, a renowned Kolkata paediatrician and chairman of the West Bengal Task Force on Crib Deaths. These were not the first crib deaths in recent months. Why was this happening? Couldn’t we, with all the technology at our command, save those precious little lives?

I was hoping Tridib, with his experience of decades, would be able to enlighten me about this recurring phenomenon. Talking to him proved quite educative, as he suggested ways to bring down the infant mortality rate.

Malda has made it to the news often for crib deaths. Each death is a tragedy and brings an irredeemable sadness to the family in which it occurs and for the parents who have lost their child. Yet, as Tridib told me, it is not as if such deaths are “everyday phenomena”. “Besides they take an enormous emotional toll on the doctors,” he said, “and place the hospital under stress. Failure to save a life is never easy to cope with.”

It needs to be noted that even on a “normal” day, the infant mortality is about three to four in tertiary hospitals such as the one at Malda, where critically ill new-borns are brought in. On some days, there is a clustering of seven babies gone in a single hospital on a single day. This makes the picture seem ominous.

The Malda hospital is a referral centre. It has what is called an SNCU or Sick New-born Care Unit, which is where extreme and critical neonatal cases are sent. The babies who arrive at this Malda facility are already very ill, critically ill. Saving them becomes that much more difficult. Take the seven crib deaths that occurred the other day; six of the children came from far-flung areas of the district. Already very sick – too ill for a local doctor to help – they had to bear an arduous and long journey to the city. This weakened them further, leaving them at greater risk of death due to asphyxia or infection.

Why were these babies brought in at a terminal stage? Were they born worse off, and weaker, than most other babies who survived and didn’t need to be taken to an SNCU in the first place? It was a simple, even na├»ve question, but Tridib was patient.

“Frankly,” he said, “there we move from medicine to society and sociology. Most of these deaths can in a sense be blamed on the fact that very young women, with immature bodies and in poor health conditions themselves, give birth to underweight and undernourished babies. If the practice of marrying off girls at a very young age, in their teens, could be put to an end, it would be a big help.”

Could the Kanyashree scheme, launched by the West Bengal Government and aimed at incentivising girl education and delaying marriage, achieve this? I live in optimism.

That is, however, a long-term solution. In the short run, health facilities and capacities have to be boosted. Till 2011, when the Trinamool came to office, West Bengal had six such SNCUs. Today, it has 40. By the end of financial year 2014-15, it should have 50. The idea is to spread the SNCUs across the state, so that, for instance, the babies who needed to be taken to Malda could have gone to a facility much closer and cut travel time.

Will this enhancement provide succour to those seven bereaved families? No.I do hope and pray, however, that it will help other parents, those whose little ones need critical care.











Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

June 07, 2014

Coincidence no. 13



Thirteen years ago, to the day, a horse called Galileo won the Epsom Derby. It was the first winner of Aidan O’Brien, son of the legendary trainer Vincent O’Brien. Aidan – no relation I may add – went on to become a distinguished trainer himself and had three more Derby winners to his name.

Thirteen years ago, to the day, my younger brother Andy and his wife were blessed with a son in Perth, where they live. Andy is no horse racing fan but the coincidence was too much for him to resist and he named his son Aidan.

This morning I called Aidan O’Brien in Perth and wished my nephew, now a strapping teenager, happy birthday. Surfing on my iPad, I discovered today too was Derby day and Aidan O’Brien will soon be back on the race course at Epsom. This time he is hoping to win with Galileo’s son.

To further the coincidence, riding Galileo’s son will be Aidan O’Brien’s son, now a young jockey.

What sent a tingling sensation down my spine was the name of the horse. Galileo’s son is called … Australia!

It’s a strange and happy coincidence, and has certainly made my Saturday. Have a good weekend!









Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

June 02, 2014

From the IPL to the Indian Parliamentary League



I landed in Delhi this morning for the IPL: the Indian Parliamentary League. This past evening, on Sunday, June 1, I was in Bangalore for the other IPL: the Indian Premier League. It was a delight to see Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) win, and I hope this heralds a good week.

I’m more a soccer fan than a cricket fan, I must confess, and I don’t usually have club loyalties. I don’t follow the EPL or the IPL with fervour and prefer matches – whether the FIFA World Cup or limited-overs cricket – where countries play each other. This year, persuaded by my 18-year-old daughter, I made an exception for the IPL. Together, father and daughter saw two games at the Eden Gardens and then flew to Bangalore for the final.

We politely refused KKR’s gracious offer to be guests in the team owner’s box. There’s nothing like watching a sports game in the midst of ordinary crowds and enthusiasts, and cheering with a thousand others. That’s what we did on Sunday.

I expected Robin Uthappa, the Bangalore boy who’s been so devastatingly good for KKR this season, to fire away in the final. Inexplicably he failed. Two unlikely heroes emerged. Wriddhiman Saha, a tiny young man from Siliguri, north Bengal, and resident of Rajarhat, a new township near Kolkata, played an unbelievable innings for King’s XI Punjab. Next Manish Pandey, a lad from Nainital who lives in Bangalore and plays for Karnataka in the Ranji Trophy, delivered a spellbinding 94 for KKR. It was a pulsating contest, made sweeter by Kolkata’s victory.

The new parliamentary session begins this week. In the days and weeks and months and years to come, the 16th Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha will throw up new and unlikely stars. The opposition is now in government but the old government is not quite in opposition. The BJP will depend on its new batting order to put up a good score. The Congress, with only 44 seats, is short of piercing fast bowlers; it will be for parties such as the AIADMK, the Trinamool Congress and the BJD to spin a web around the new government and confound it with their googlies. Inevitably, hitherto unheralded parliamentary heroes will emerge. The game is on.








Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

May 19, 2014

Congress 44: Is it time for a reverse merger?



The Congress is down to 44 seats in the Lok Sabha, a staggering loss of 162 seats since 2009. How has this happened? To understand it, one needs to see the event in context.

In its long and chequered history, the Congress has split several times. I am not referring to the historical Congress of the freedom movement but the more recent political party dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi family. Every state leader who has broken away from the Congress in recent memory has had to go back, tail between legs.

The First Citizen of India, in an earlier incarnation, set up his own breakaway party in West Bengal, contested all 294 seats in the 1987 assembly election and won precisely nothing. The outgoing Finance Minister of India was member of a party that came out of the Congress in Tamil Nadu in 1996. Less than a decade later, the bravado was gone. He was trying to find his way back. Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra set up his party in 1999, but was allying with the Congress in five years. Today, his party, the NCP, is an also-ran, a small appendage of a shrinking Congress.

The one and only leader, since Independence, who has moved away from the Congress and succeeded is Mamata Banerjee. The Trinamool Congress won 34 seats in West Bengal, only 10 seats lower than the Congress’ all-India figure. The party which was started on January 1, 1998, won 19 Lok Sabha seats in 2009, and a thumping majority in the West Bengal Assembly in 2011. Both these famous victories were won when the Trinamool was in alliance with the Congress. What makes the 2014 win even more satisfying is that the party won 34 seats and 40% of the vote share, all on its own.

In the old days, the Congress inevitably subsumed breakaway groups and dissident parties as these groups and parties lost vitality. Today, the Congress itself is on the ropes. Is it time for a reverse merger? The Congress is a party in search of strong leaders. It has driven out its strong leaders. Congress workers know where to find them.








Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

May 14, 2014

Exit polls: The Blooper of Blooper Awards



Exit polls are good entertainment and are needed to keep political obsessives and television anchors busy in the days between voting and counting. I’ve participated in a few exit poll debates over the past two days, and been both amused and provoked. I’m looking forward to the NDTV exit poll this evening, brought to us by the original polling guru, Prannoy Roy.

Some exit polls are honest efforts, conducted by serious companies. Others are quack polls, done by amateurs. They come up with astounding results. I have a collection of what were to my mind the four biggest bloopers of the exit polls so far:

  • The Blooper of Blooper Award must go to Times Now-ORG India for giving the Congress 14 seats in Rajasthan and the BJP only 10. How is this possible six months after the BJP won a massive, massive mandate in the Rajasthan assembly election? (By the way, can someone enlighten me on the ORG controversy? Are they saying they are not the original ORG?)
  • ABP-Nielsen gives the CPI(M)-led Left Front 36 per cent of the popular vote in West Bengal and the Trinamool Congress three per cent less, 33%. Again, this defies even CPI(M) expectations. (Is it just a coincidence that ABP Ananda have been Trinamool Congress bashing for the last two months?)
  • Times Now-ORG India (again) gives Laloo Yadav’s RJD zero seats in Bihar and Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) 10 seats. A journalist I know and respect, who travelled the length and breadth of Bihar during the election, had only one word to offer: “Ludicrous.”
  • The Today’s Chanakya poll gives the BJP six-eight seats in West Bengal. In 2009, in alliance with GJM, the party won just one, Darjeeling. While I admit the BJP’s vote share in West Bengal will go up appreciably from the current 6%, I don’t see it coming anywhere close to six or eight seats, as this poll has predicted.

As such, while I recognise exit polls are needed to fill the space between ads from May 12 to 16, I’m taking them with a pinch of salt.








Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

April 30, 2014

Silently, far from the cackle of TV studios...



Every election has a narrative. In a conventional campaign, spread over three to four weeks, the narrative is consistent and can be carried through till the very end. In a multi-phase election, stretching across two months or more, the narrative is challenged and effort is needed to sustain it.

Why does this happen? Frankly, fatigue and familiarity set in. Pushing the same message or set of messages becomes difficult. In the 2014 election, a campaign that in effect began in February will have to be lengthened to the middle of May. In the case of West Bengal, polling is taking place in five phases, from the foothills of the Himalayas to the vastness of Bengal’s heartland to the mangrove forests of the Sunderbans. Can a common narrative survive this gruelling test of geography and time?

In the Trinamool Congress, we certainly believe so. For us the narrative of the election is the good work done by Mamata Banerjee’s government since it took charge of Writers’ Buildings in the summer of 2011. The Lok Sabha poll is primarily a referendum on the new Bengal that we have sought to build, brick by brick, inch by inch, gradually.

Take two examples of initiatives that are little noticed by the hyperbole-obsessed media but are nevertheless expected to yield us handsome returns in the voting booth. Kanyashree is a scheme that is being much appreciated especially in north and central Bengal, where poverty figures are high and where the girl child is an object of acute neglect.

Our state has had a long-standing problem in these regions of girls being married off early, in their teens. Consequently, they become mothers at a very young age and that leads to health issues for the girl in question as well as for the family and society at large. For the girl’s parents getting her married off early is a practical solution to the household budget. It means there is one less mouth to feed. There is no incentive to delay marriage and educate the girl.

Kanyashree is a state government scheme that has stepped into this gap. It offers girl children and their families Rs 500 every year through their period of schooling. When a girl turns 18, Rs 25,000 is transferred to the family’s bank account. This money can be used for higher studies or, if the family and girl so choose, to pay for wedding expenses. The option is personal.

Kanyashree has proved an immensely popular scheme. Already, we are seeing growing retention of girls in schools and drop-out rates are falling. In a five to seven year period, I am confident we will have dramatic social and economic results. UNICEF too are impressed. Last week they confirmed that they would partner the West Bengal government on this project. Silently, far from the cackle of television studios, a revolution has begun in rural Bengal.

The other mission that Mamatadi has focused on and that is paying us dividends is the determined setting up of a network of fair-price medicine shops, to provide drugs and medicines at affordable rates to ordinary people. Out-of-pocket healthcare expenses are high in our country. A particularly debilitating illness, and the associated costs, can push a family living just above the poverty line back into destitution. Access to and assurance of cheap medicines is a boon in this regard.

These are only two snapshots of the assiduous and optimistic change that we have succeeded in introducing to the heart of Bengal in the past three years. That is why, miles from the shouting matches between Congress and BJP spokespersons, undeterred by the screaming and name calling of discredited and desperate CPI(M) busybodies, the Bengali voter is renewing her trust in Mamatadi.

As the election reaches its final fortnight, the Trinamool narrative is proving persuasive.








Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

April 25, 2014

On the Road before E Day


Day 16: Does Church have a poll role?

I am a devout, church-going Catholic and take religion seriously. However, I don’t wear it on my sleeve and try not to make it part of my public persona. Despite these efforts, there are occasions when some people choose to misunderstand me and miss a nuanced point.

This happened the other evening on Times Now, while discussing the letter written by Father Frazer Mascarenhas, a priest and the principal of St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, to all the students of his college. Without explicitly naming parties, Father Mascarenhas made a pitch for the Congress. He urged students to be wary of the Gujarat model and praised some key programmes of the UPA government. The implication was obvious.

As an individual, Father Mascarenhas is entirely entitled to his views. He is free to write a newspaper article stating his case, and criticising or praising a political party. However, in writing to his students in his official capacity as principal, in writing on official stationery and under the St Xavier’s College letterhead, he clearly and absolutely overreached himself. In that narrow sense, his action is indefensible. I say this even though I share misgivings about the Gujarat model’s political sustainability.

I was keen to see, however, that the debate did not take a religious turn and did not lead to accusations that all Catholics, or all Christians, were being asked to vote against the BJP and in favour of the Congress. I believe Father Mascarenhas’ personal view is not the institutional view of the Church nor the view of every single Christian. Indian Christians are as heterogeneous and as politically divided as members of any other community.

We need to understand the social-religious structure of India’s 24 million Christians, some 80 per cent of whom are Catholic. Father Mascarenhas reports to a Provincial. In turn the Provincial reports to an Archbishop. The Archbishop reports to a Cardinal. India has five Cardinals. All of them vote in a papal election. One of the senior-most is Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.

On February 11, Cardinal Gracias issued a letter to the Catholic community in anticipation of the general election. He laid down the social and economic context of the election and the Church’s concerns. He prayed for, among other things, a leadership that would “uphold the secular character of our nation and promote communal harmony and a spirit of inter-religious dialogue and understanding”. Other than a general wish list, there was no reference to parties or political programmes. In fact, the letter said:

At the outset we wish to make it clear to all that the Catholic Church does not identify herself with any political party. But we have a responsibility as bishops to urge every eligible citizen to exercise his/her right and duty to vote and do so prudently, carefully and judiciously. All our parish priests are urged to impress on the people their obligation in this regard. We must be convinced that every vote does count. We owe it to ourselves, our children and our country not to let go of this opportunity to get involved in bettering the history, culture and destiny of our nation.

I fail to say how the paragraph above, and the tone of Cardinal Gracias’ letter, is even remotely objectionable. Of course, I would be the first to admit that Father Mascarenhas’ letter violates the spirit of Cardinal Gracias’ message.

On April 6, the final Sunday before voting began in the 16th Lok Sabha election, every church in India, across denominations, had a special prayer for “free and fair” polling. Again, no parties were mentioned and no preferences were stated. These two signals – of February 11 and April 6 – encapsulate the Indian Christian religious leadership’s official view of the election.








Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

[This article was carried by The Times of India | Friday, April 25, 2014]

April 19, 2014

On the Road before E Day


Day 15: Stop cribbing about opinion polls, enjoy them.

In recent days, we have seen four opinion polls related to the 16th Lok Sabha election and conducted by different news channels and their partner agencies. In the case of West Bengal, the findings and predictions have varied but conformed to a trend:

The NDTV-Hansa poll gives the Trinamool Congress 44 per cent of the vote and 28 seats

The CNN-IBN-Lokniti-CSDS poll gives Trinamool 38 per cent of the vote and 23-29 seats

The ABP News-Nielsen poll gives Trinamool 41 per cent of the vote and 28 seats

The Headlines Today poll gives Trinamool 35 per cent of the vote and 23-27 seats


Never mind what our internal assessment is, but it is not our style to crib and dispute opinion poll figures - have never done, will never do. Let's look at the broader picture. First, the opinion polls have got the trend and the sense of the Trinamool domination right. Second, having studied opinion polls before, I know conversion of votes into seats is very difficult in a multi-cornered contest. As such, honest mistakes, misappraisals and underestimations can happen.

To me the big story of the opinion polls – and of the election of 2014 – is not the determined march of Trinamool. That was expected and our curve is still rising across the state, especially in central and north Bengal (Trinamool has always dominated south Bengal).

The big story is not even the decimation of the Congress, which is widely expected to have the lowest poll percentage among the 4 major parties in West Bengal. The Congress is still breathing in only two of Bengal’s 19 districts: Malda and Murshidabad. The ABP-Nielsen poll was the cruellest to the Congress, giving it a mere eight per cent of the vote. If true, this will lead to irreversible decline.

The big story is the battle for the silver spoon – or, as we say in friendly corporate football tournaments, the Loser's Plate - a pointless contest for number two between the CPI(M)/Left Front and the BJP. The first is slipping rapidly and the second is rising from a very low base. Yet, it needs to be understood that the BJP will still end up with a big zero in Bengal.

While the Left-BJP tussle is fascinating for political observers, it doesn’t really make a difference to Trinamool and doesn’t threaten us in the least. It does tell us though that CPI(M) supporters are frustrated and troubled by the state of their party. In a desperate attempt to stop Mamata Banerjee, they are even willing to do a Faustian pact with the BJP.

Looking ahead, in the 2016 assembly election, the BJP, the rump Congress and the CPI(M) will fight each other. They will diminish the Index of Opposition Unity and split the anti-Trinamool vote. That can leave only one party the winner to continue their work of development for Bengal.

No wonder there is a sense of quiet satisfaction in Trinamool Bhavan, where I write this blog.








Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress