March 31, 2020
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"The Congress Is Like Casabianca"

Congress Working Committee member Pranab Mukherjee, hitherto always at odds with Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, now attempts to justify his party's efforts to form an alliance with her in an interview with Outlook. Excerpts:

"The Congress Is Like Casabianca"

By engaging in talks with Mamata, aren’t you compromising your secularism plank?
The ground reality in West Bengal dictates that all non-Left parties should come together. Whether this is practical or not, we will have to see. It is too preliminary a stage to say anything. It will all depend on the outcome of the talks.

But isn’t the very fact that you are engaged in a dialogue with a member of the NDA, one who reaffirmed her commitment to the ruling alliance even after talks commenced, actually a compromise?
The problem of the Congress is that things are not black and white. You can compare us to Casabianca-the boy who stood on the burning deck.

You see, not all secular parties are free of anti-Congressism. To expect to replace anti-Congressism by anti-bjpism is too simplistic. Secular forces can play a collective role in preventing the onslaught of communal forces but the former are themselves divided. In fact, they thrive at the cost of the Congress.

So, the situation is very complex. The CPI(m) is a secular force. Mamata Banerjee is also making secular noises. The fight in West Bengal is not between secular and non-secular forces. The BJP is not a significant factor in the state. So it is difficult to comment on what might emerge. Anyway, dialogue is a part of the democratic process. Sometimes we engage in dialogue with the BJP government.

In Bihar, you have chosen to join the RJD government instead of supporting it from outside...
There were two views. But we wanted to avoid a situation like 1996, when we supported a non-Congress government at the Centre from outside. People said we had authority without responsibility. Even in Pachmarhi, we said a coalition could be entered into when absolutely necessary, provided it was based on policies and programmes. So it is not altogether a negation of the Pachmarhi Declaration.

By joining the government on the basis of a common minimum programme, at least we will be in a position to influence the decision-making process in Bihar-or so we hope.

You have always favoured small cabinets, so where was the need to make every MLA of yours a minister?
The number of ministers only the circumstances of the Bihar situation can explain. I cannot explain it.

How do you justify continued support to Rabri Devi even after she has been chargesheeted?
We are taking legal opinion on the chargesheet. If she is not herself involved but is, on paper, the owner of her husband’s property, then there is no direct moral turpitude. If she as chief minister has herself done it, that’s different. Although technically, you may be correct.
Anyway, it is hard to press for her resignation because of the precedent set by L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, who are both chargesheeted in the Babri Masjid case but did not resign from the Union cabinet.

Several senior leaders like Balram Jhakhar and Kapil Sibal have called for an introspection. Do you agree?
Introspection is always needed, it should be part and parcel of the political process. At the same time, opinions should not be aired in public but in party fora. There is no need to write to the party president and then leak the letter to the press. This leads to charges that you are seeking publicity.

Does the cross-voting in the Rajya Sabha election indicate an erosion of the Congress president’s authority?
Apart from West Bengal, no. There have been umpteen cases of cross-voting. Which is not to say the party should not be disciplined.

In the perception of Congressmen, Sonia survives because you don’t have an alternative leader. Comment.
The perception of Congressmen is an important thing. You need to rally your ranks because you cannot fight if they are in disarray. And that is what happened when she came. She was able to keep the ranks intact.

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