"My reasons for leaving the Congress were the way the 2024 Assam elections were fought. My reasons were very regional, they weren't national," said Sushmita Dev, now a Rajya Sabha nominee of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) for the second time.
Once the face of Mahila Congress and considered a confidante of Priyanka Gandhi, she has previously represented the Congress from Silchar constituency of Assm, both as a Lok Sabha MP and an MLA. After joining the TMC in 2021, she has represented West Bengal in the Rajya Sabha from 2021-2023.
Dev's nomination comes at a crucial time when the TMC and the Congress, both allies of the Opposition's INDIA bloc, are at loggerheads.
The Mamata Banerjee-led party has declared that it will not share any seats with the Congress in West Bengal. "But Mamata Banerjee never said that she is quitting the alliance," Dev said, as she squarely blamed Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury for the rift between the two parties.
So, does that mean the TMC will field candidates against the Congress-Left alliance in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections? Will the two parties still share seats in Assam?
As she gears up for her second stint as the TMC's Rajya Sabha face, Dev answers crucial questions on 'Badi Badi Baatein'.
Hello Sushmita ji, welcome to The Quint and Quint Hindi and welcome to our show Badi Badi Baatein! Lots of 'badi badi baatein' are happening within the INDIA bloc. What does the term 'Badi Badi Baatein' men to you politically?
'Badi Badi Baatein' can be two things. One can be a bluff, the way we call the BJP government's bluffs. Second, it can be a dream of a revolution.
Who according to you bluffs and who is dreaming of a revolution?
When the BJP or the country's prime minister say that they will cross the figure of 370 seats (in Lok Sabha), you can merely understand from looking at the figures that it is impossible for the BJP.
This is just psychological warfare to create fear and influence the floating voters. History is witness to the fact that when Rajiv Gandhi had crossed the 400 figure, he won seats from south, north, and the north-east. That is not possible for the BJP to achieve.
Talking of possibilities - the Congress and the TMC are at loggerheads. Rahul Gandhi recently said that Mamata Banerjee is very much a part of the INDIA bloc. Is that true?
Mamata Banerjee never said that she is quitting the alliance. She repeatedly said that if there has to be seat sharing to defeat the BJP, the TMC needs to contest all 42 seats. It is true that the Congress has two sitting MPs in West Bengal.
You are aware what kind of statements and behaviour (of the Congress) created tensions.
I want to clarify why Mamata didi is still a part of the alliance. The battle that Mamata didi fought with the BJP in the 2021 Assembly elections or the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it is clear before the country and for her that her fight with the BJP will continue in 2024 too. And in this fight, the TMC is the strongest party in West Bengal. So, whatever alliance is formed centrally to defeat the BJP, Mamata did will stand by it.
Speaking of seat sharing, would you like to tell us wherever the conflict began and what the Congress demanded?
Seat sharing talks are closed door discussions. But to explain to the viewers, I would like to tell that there were 2-3 criteria decided for seat sharing. The first one was to look at the vote share of 2021 Assembly elections and 2019 Lok Sabha elections and looking at any improvement or change in it as of today.
Considering 2-3 such criteria, the number of seats that we decided the Congress should contest on, that was not acceptable to the West Bengal unit of the Congress party.
If our aim is to defeat the BJP, the Congress should not be looking at what it can simultaneously do to benefit itself in the state.
We had pitched that figure to the Congress which the Bengal Congress leaders did not accept. Hence, we backed out of seat sharing because the kind of seat sharing formula that the Congress wanted, that would have only benefitted the BJP.
What was the number of seats they were demanding?
These are closed-door discussions but the figures should be such that we can put up a fight against the BJP. If there cannot be a consensus on that, the alliance will stay but there cannot be consensus on seat sharing.
Mamata ji said a few days back that the TMC won't ally with Congress in West Bengal. Does it mean that there will be a contest between the Congress and the TMC in Bengal? Will the TMC field candidates against Congress-Left candidates in the state?
The situation as it stands today, CM Mamata Banerjee has said that we are ready to contest on 42 seats and we will. In Assembly elections, the Congress-Left alliance contested on 400 seats and you saw the results.
Their vote share was near zero. It has to be taken into consideration whom will benefit from seat sharing. If the TMC contests 42 seats, the BJP will lose and that is the reason we are willing to contest 42 seats. Now, if the Congress or the Left or any other party wants to contest these seats, it's a democracy and they are free to do so.
Who does the TMC blame for the tensions? The Congress or the Left? Because the Left, too, has been attacking the TMC for the past few days.
Alliances can be decided upon in meetings in Mumbai and Bengaluru but they have to be taken to the grassroots for which you need time. We have been telling the Congress and the alliance partners to begin the talks since September and finish them by 30 September.
The talks didn't take place even till 30 December and the whole of January passed as well. If the talks had taken place in September, the seat sharing would have looked different today.
What was more unfortunate that the kind of statements made by Congress Bengal chief and the Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha (Adhir Ranjan Choudhary), they sent a very wrong message to the voters. If the voters listen to the press briefings of Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, what message do they get?
Speaking of Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, does the TMC squarely blame him for the rift between the two parties in West Bengal?
I would repeat what our Rajya Sabha floor leader Derek O'Brien said - there are three reasons for conflicts in seat-sharing talks and all three are Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury. He did apologise later but public perception is everything in politics.
If you spoil that... after all Mamata didi is a three-time chief minister. If welcome ED probe against her, against Abhishek Banerjee, if you demand for President's rule in West Bengal, such statements coming from a senior Congress leader sends the wrong message. The sole reason behind the whole conflict is Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury. bhg
Had the TMC leadership flagged issues with Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury with the Congress leadership?
The issues were raised not once but multiple times in the past four months internally.
There was no action to silence him or discipline him. On the contrary, Congress leader Jairam Ramesh said that the local Bengal leaders know what's better for the Congress. That shows what the Congress mindset is internally.
During the foot march of Rahul Gandhi that passed from Bengal, he once again said that Mamata Banerjee is very much a part of the INDIA bloc. Do you see this as an olive branch? Because many other leaders have also said that the fractured relationship can still be fixed.
We had nothing against Rahul Gandhi's march. In a democracy, anybody can do it. Rahul Gandhi said that the relations still exist.
Even we say that we will be a part of whatever circumstances arise while defeating the BJP. Mamata did is big-hearted. She was also the one who had pitched Mallikarjun Kharge's name to be the chairperson of the alliance.
Are you confident that the TMC will be able to take on the BJP in West Bengal this time? Because in the previous elections, the made significant inroads. Do you think that momentum has continued since? Is it going to be difficult for the TMC than it was before?
The TMC won 23 seats in the previous Lok Sabha elections and the BJP got about 18 seats. In the Assembly elections that took place in 2021, the TMC upped its performance.
The TMC's organisation and welfare programmes are popular in West Bengal. Mamata didi became the chief minister thrice because of her welfare schemes.
The Indian economy is growing at 7% but Bengal's economy is growing at 8%. The BJP, this time, will definitely lose seats in West Bengal. There is no doubt in it.
You spoke about a delay in seat sharing talks. According to you or the TMC, what are the other reasons behind cracks in the INDIA bloc? Nitish Kumar's exit is being considered as a big blow to the Opposition. There are similar reports about other leaders. What went wrong? What could have been better in terms of the functioning of INDIA bloc?
If you look at Nitish Kumar's track record, you will realise how many times he has changed sides. Election is purely a game of numbers. The RJD's strike rate is going to be better than last time.
So, the way BJP thinks that Nitish Kumar's exit will be a big blow to the INDIA bloc, that is not true. RJD has a very big role to play in Bihar.
But the way you spoke about perception game earlier, don't you think that Nitish Kumar's leaving will undo everything that the INDIA alliance worked for for almost the past entire year?
See, the way I see it, Nitish Kumar entering NDA is going to harm the BJP and the people of Bihar understand this. Today, we are talking in our studios. But if we look at the ground reality in Bihar, Nitish Kumar joining hands with the BJP will harm both of them - that is the public perception in Bihar.
TMC is going solo in West Bengal. will it have the same stand in Assam?
If the alliance does not stand - Mamata didi had demanded for four seats. We are also saying for Assam and Meghalaya that we will contest those seats where our on-ground organisation is strong. Our aim is to not harm Congress or any other secular party. The four seats that we are demanding are the ones where the Congress las lost the past two Assembly elections as well as the past two Lok Sabha elections.
Deviating from politics a little bit and coming to you - you were with the Congress before and now you are with the TMC. You leaving Congress was a shock to many. How do you look back at your move today?
My reasons for leaving the Congress were the way the 2024 Assam elections were fought. My reasons were very regional, they weren't national. And I would say that after the 2024 national elections in Assam, you will see the results.
You have my number, give me a call and you will tell me that 'Sushmita, you made the right decision.' See, my fight with the BJP is ideological. So, when I see compromises being made on my ideology and I see compromises being made at individual level at the cost of the party, I don't sign up for that and I don't stand up for that.
Do you think things have changed after Mr Kharge has taken over?
It's a very difficult question. All I'll say is that it's not clear who the face of the Congress party is. Is it Rahul ji, Kharge ji, or Priyanka ji? Who's the face of the Congress party? That to my mind is not clear.
You think even the INDIA bloc needs a face for clarity and to avoid confusion?
Definitely. And I think, the timing has to be different. When you decide the face for a party, there is no obstacle, it's an internal decision. so, Congress has no excuse to declare who the face is.
But when it comes to an alliance, timing is very important. If you mis-time it, you misfire, or you fire before, it can go wrong. But that can't be said about parties. Can the TMC say today who the CM of Bengal is? Whether it is Mamata didi or Abhishek or somebody else? You can't say that. Internally, you have to have clarity.
On a lighter note, that takes me to the Shiv Sena and the NCP because there was a time when it was said that you cannot imagine these parties without Uddhav Thackeray or Sharad Pawar but we all see what has happened. But not speaking as a spokesperson or a leader of a party, if you had to, who would you pick a face from the India bloc?
Obviously, I would want my leader to become the Prime Minister but I am sure I am not going to be a part of those negotiations or discussions. So, it's a hypothetical question.