‘This government uses bulldozers on the ground and bulldozes us inside Parliament’

Suspended Rajya Sabha MPs Sushmita Dev (TMC), Kanimozhi NVN Somu (DMK) and AA Rahim (CPM) on the Opposition’s trust deficit with the government, putting up a united front and why it has failed to counter the narrative set by the BJP. The session was moderated by Associate Editor Manoj CG.

Manoj CG: The Opposition had been demanding a discussion on price rise. The government says to let Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman return and you’re saying no, let’s start the discussion now. So is there a trust deficit?

Sushmita Dev: This government uses bulldozers on the ground and bulldozes us inside Parliament. We asked them to start the debate as a matter of urgency and as and when Nirmala Sitharaman returns, she can reply. You can call it a trust deficit but I think the deficit lies in what we think is a parliamentary democracy and how they define parliamentary democracy.

Kanimozhi NVN Somu: Why can’t the Prime Minister come and address us? Why should only the Finance Minister answer this? Doesn’t the PM hold any responsibility towards the people regarding the issues of GST rise or price rise?

AA Rahim: The core issue is not the discussion but the attitude of the government. The monsoon session opened with the addition of new unparliamentary words like corruption, dictatorial, criminal, betrayal and cheating… It is very clear that they are afraid. They keep away from discussion. We are representatives of the people, we will raise their issues in Parliament. That is part of the process of a democratic system. They’re afraid of the democratic system. I am a new member. I got a suspension on the ninth day of my parliamentary experience. In this short span, I couldn’t see my Prime Minister in the House. They have cut short the monsoon session to 17 days. Three more members have been suspended from the Rajya Sabha. I think their target (the number of members they want to suspend) is 75 because it is Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav.

Manoj CG: Is displaying placards in the House right on your part?

Rahim: I didn’t pick a placard. Out of 19 suspended members, only one member had held a placard.

Kanimozhi: When you communicate with a person and they don’t listen, what do you do next? You raise your voice. They don’t listen. So, who intensifies the agitation? Is it the Opposition or the Chair and the ruling government? They don’t want to listen to us. They should give time for the Leader of the Opposition and the other party leaders to put forth their thoughts.

Dev: The optics go against us when we are holding a placard, whether it’s one person or it’s 10 people. When papers are being torn, the optics are bad, the narrative goes against us. Not undermining the importance of the Indian Antarctic Bill, 2022, and the Weapons of Mass Destruction and their Delivery Systems (Prohibition of Unlawful Activities) Amendment Bill, I think what is far more blasphemous for parliamentary democracy is when you have two bills, which have just two clauses, and you’re debating it for three days. Are we wasting the taxpayers’ money or is the Treasury Bench abusing the taxpayers’ money? What the Treasury Bench is doing with the parliamentary procedure is far worse than just showing a placard.

Liz Mathew: Why has the Opposition failed to counter these optics or this narrative set by the BJP?

Dev: Because you (journalists) set the narrative. I was in a party which was part of the UPA (United Progressive Alliance). In the UPA-2 days, the entire media would criticise. That’s the job of the media, to keep a check on the party in power. That entire thing has reversed. We keep losing the battle of narrative. I think we also have to be more aggressive. Like we are inside Parliament as the Opposition, we have to be more on the streets.

Kanimozhi: We are always for the people on the streets but when we are sent to Parliament, I think we also need to raise our voice there. When there is a suspension and uproar in Parliament, the first news that comes from social media is ‘ruckus by Opposition parliamentarians’. Do you think we would like to give away our zero-hour and just walk out of Parliament without speaking there? By the time we get out of Parliament and try to explain, the scene outside is over for us. We don’t have a platform to even take it to the people.

Liz Mathew: Since 2019 there has been a repeated call for a united Opposition. But this has not translated into action on the ground or on the floor of the House. What is stopping the Opposition parties from putting up a united front?

Dev: Today, Mamata Banerjee will fight on every single seat in Bengal because that’s her strength. The CPM will fight on every seat in Kerala and Tripura because that’s their bastion. The Congress will fight lock stock and barrel with NCP and Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh. We are not going there to disturb the Congress. So when you talk of Opposition unity, you need to put it in perspective. UPA-1 is the best example of how the Opposition can still come together without crossing each other’s paths in those states.

Liz Mathew: Are you blaming the Congress for the lack of unity among the Opposition?

Dev: There’s no question of blaming anybody. So, if you ask me, does my party want the Congress to succeed in Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra? We say yes. We haven’t gone to a single state where the Congress is in power. We want the Congress to succeed. For us, to go from one per cent to 30 per cent is very difficult. Opposition unity is not the sole responsibility of Mamata Banerjee. I don’t blame them, but I want their actions to be proportionate to their so-called size and vote share, which they take so much pride in.

Kanimozhi: There is no lack of unity. All Opposition parties were against price rise. As the Opposition, we hold good for a common cause.

Rahim: Every political party has their own political programme and interests. We can come together on common issues. We are protesting together because of our concern for the future of our country.

Liz Mathew: Some of the Congress MPs alleged that because of what is happening in West Bengal right now — the ED action — Mamata Banerjee is scared, and that is why you have put up a different show. What do you have to say about the lack of unity in the Opposition?

Kanimozhi: There is no lack of unity. All Opposition parties were against price rise. Apart from that, there are also some state-specific problems that need to be addressed. For example, after the 45th GST meeting, Tamil Nadu was not one of the members of the committee that was constituted. They had given GST for curd and everything and a letter was sent to Tamil Nadu, which was the Finance Minister’s answer on June 20, which we have not accepted. So, nobody knows what Tamil Nadu said in its reply on GST. Piyush Goyal made an accusation in Parliament, stating why doesn’t your finance minister educate your people? Well, our finance minister has educated you as well, and if you are not aware of it that is not our problem. It’s your duty to find out what the state has replied to you. As the Opposition, we hold good for a common cause. There are also other problems in other states. In TMC, there is an ED case. Definitely, they will oppose it. If this happens in Tamil Nadu, we’ll take it up. Nobody’s going to keep quiet and accept whatever they say. If it happens to the BJP tomorrow, they will also defend themselves.

Rahim: The CPM and CPI, we are two parties. But we are together in Kerala as the Left. Every political party has their own political programme and interests. We can come together on common issues. We are protesting together because of our concern for the future of our country. What is the future of our country? What is the future of our Constitution of India?

Aakash Joshi: We saw during the two major national-level protests — CAA and the farmer agitation — that the protesters themselves are very wary of being associated with the Opposition parties. How do you see that playing out?

Dev: People would much rather protest on their own than be held by some political party because of fear of the BJP. They’re scared of BJP’s track record. If you write (something) on Facebook, you go to jail.

Kanimozhi: If you post something on Facebook, you’re put in jail. Democracy has stopped at the parliamentarian level, even at the common personal level.

Manoj CG: Isn’t it rich on your part as a leader from Tamil Nadu to talk about vendetta? All through these years, we have seen very dirty vendetta between the two tallest leaders of the AIADMK and DMK when they came to power alternatively.

Kanimozhi: It’s the media which is exaggerating events for TRP. There is a lot of confusion in AIADMK. I hope it soon sorts out and they settle down with somebody as the Opposition leader. We would like to have an Opposition. That’s the real Dravidian way.

Amrith Lal: We have seen a lot of arrests of civil society activists. Why is it that none of you discusses it in the House?

Dev: I can think of many instances where if there has been an unlawful arrest or undemocratic activity, it has been raised in Parliament. If you feel that we don’t, then maybe we have to do it more vociferously.

Rahim: Your concern is very serious. But all of us will raise the issue in Parliament.

Manoj CG: The parties that you represent have won elections, and got huge mandates in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. But why is the Opposition narrative not working at a national level?

Rahim: One of the reasons they (BJP) have succeeded is because of communal polarisation and Hindutva politics.

Dev: Why are we unable to oust a party like the BJP at the national level? The micro issue is that any party which does not have an organisation at the booth level cannot beat the BJP. You’re fighting a machinery. And the macro reason is that people want to know it’s Narendra Modi versus who? I believe that the general elections in this country have gone into a presidential form. The macro issue is we find either a name for Modi versus who or we find a formula where that is not the only question.

P Vaidyanathan Iyer: It looks like it’s a matter of time when this onslaught of the BJP at the micro level will come to your states. How do you prepare for that?

Kanimozhi: In Tamil Nadu, our grassroots levels are very strong. DMK is a party which came up from the grassroots. BJP is a party which is trying to reach the grassroots level but we are also strengthening our roots to compensate for that. They are trying to take up Hinduism as an issue to grow in Tamil Nadu. I don’t think that is the right way. Tamil Nadu is not a state which is made up of Hindus only.

Rahim: My party (CPM) has four micro-level management systems in Kerala, Tripura and Bengal. In Kerala, the micro-level management has been very good. We are trying our best to strengthen our organisation in other parts of the country too.

Nirupama Subramanian: You said the BJP has successfully polarised the country. It seems like you do not have a good alternative agenda to offer to the people.

Rahim: There is no shortcut. The only thing we can do is to raise the issue of the masses, irrespective of religion, caste or creed.

Kanimozhi: The regional parties have a common agenda. What does the BJP have to offer to the public, apart from the communal issue through the RSS?

Shahid Parvez: How will you compare Mamata Banerjee to Rahul Gandhi?

Dev: There’s no comparison. How can you compare a three-time Chief Minister who has defeated the Modi-Shah juggernaut? It is not a fair comparison. Banerjee stands for a lot of things. They both have my respect.

Vandita Mishra: Where does the institution of Parliament figure in that narrative that an MP goes to the people with? Do you get a sense that it matters to people how their MP performs in Parliament, or fails to perform? Does parliamentary performance at all figure in electoral calculations for the people?

Dev: When I was in the 16th Lok Sabha, I sat in the last row. There were tall leaders just two seats ahead and on my right. One was from Bihar and the other from Jharkhand. They never came to Parliament. I spoke on Triple Talaq, bills after bills. I lost my election and they are probably seven-time MPs.That’stheirony of Indian democracy and electoral politics. But I would like to believe that as a parliamentarian, my performance in Parliament should matter to my constituency and my non-performance should be seen as negative. Otherwise, what’s the point of having a parliamentary representative?

Avishek G Dastidar: The space for dissent is shrinking. Why hasn’t the Opposition been able to mobilise people in this regard? Is there a disconnect with the voters or is it because the Opposition parties are equally guilty of stifling dissent?

Rahim: Never compare the BJP and all other regional state governments or parties. The BJP has the basic ideology of the RSS, which is associated with fascism. The CPM doesn’t uphold such a fascist ideology.

Dev: Our Constitution says freedom of speech but every right has a duty. There has to be some limitation to freedom of speech. You also have to be cautious as a leader not to crush anyone who’s saying anything against it. It’s a fine balance. Being criticised is a part of being a public figure. But if you’regoing to humiliate me again and again and expect me to stand back, I’m sorry, then I am no leader.

Rinku Ghosh: What is your position about reclaiming the Hindu mindset space?

Kanimozhi: The DMK has been termed by the BJP in Tamil Nadu as anti-Hindus. We are notagainst Hindus. Social justice towards everybody, that is our motto.

Dev: The BJP had 37.36 per cent votes. Subtract that from 100. That’s the bank that doesn’t believe in (Hindutva) and that is where we will focus on.

Why Sushmita Dev, Kanimozhi NVN Somu, AA Rahim

Previously a Lok Sabha MP from the Congress in Assam, Sushmita Dev joined the TMC a year ago while both DMK’s Kanimozhi NVN Somu from Tamil Nadu and CPM’s AA Rahim from Kerala are first-time MPs. They are among the 23 Opposition MPs who have been suspended for alleged misconduct from the Rajya Sabha this session. This number is highest in the recent history of Parliament.

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