Chandan Mitra, 58, grew up in Hooghly and Kolkata, went to college in Delhi and Oxford, and started his career as a journalist with daily newspapers. In his younger days, Mitra worked for the Janta Party, became involved with leftist movements, helped manage Shashi Tharoor’s campaign for college elections and briefly joined the Labour Party in England. He eventually became a member of the BJP and has served two terms as a Rajya Sabha MP for the party. He has also continued his work as a journalist and editor, buying control of The Pioneer in 1998. In the upcoming elections Mitra will contest for a Lok Sabha seat for the first time, from his hometown of Hooghly.
Like many who grew up in Kolkata, I believe you initially had leftist leanings which began to change when you went to Oxford. Why do you think this happened?
Well I wasn’t exactly a leftist when I was in Kolkata; in fact I became more of a leftist when I came to Delhi, to St. Stephen’s College. The impact of the Emergency of 1975-77 made me a highly animated political person. And therefore, when the Emergency ended, I was… although I worked for the Janta Party in the 1977 election, my convictions had turned left. And so 1977 onwards, I was pretty much active in the Left’s teachers’ movement in Delhi University. Then I went abroad. I went to Oxford to do my D.Phil. That was the time communism was collapsing all over Europe, starting with Poland. And television brought live pictures of the way things were collapsing in Poland and East Germany and so on. And this deeply impacted me. See, we had not yet seen that kind of live television reportage in India. And seeing all that, I started believing there was something seriously wrong with the communist system or anything that suppresses individual freedom. So, that is when I moved away from communism, although my migration to the BJP happened some years later.
Do you feel there is a clearly defined left and right in Indian politics? Or do you feel that, in the Indian context, the right needs to maybe redefine itself a little more?
Well you know, there is really no sharply defined left and right in India today. Because somewhere there is a great leveller. Because poverty is so preponderant in India that no party can avoid or consistently oppose the idea of a welfare society, of egalitarianism. And this has been the Indian tradition right from the beginning. So, there is no right wing party in the sense of the Tory party of England which advocates private capital, privatisation of medicine, privatisation of everything. In India, that is not practical. There are shades of right and shades of left, but I think over time the Left has diluted itself to pink or maybe eventually yellow. The right, from navy blue, is probably diluting itself to something like a sky blue. So let us see where they all end up.
What is the core ideology of the BJP that you’ve been attracted to?
Well, two fundamental things. One, I believe the BJP is a genuine nationalist force in this country. I don’t find any other party which has this kind of commitment to the motherland and to India’s position and glory in the world, and the commitment to make India a major economic and political power.
Second, I do believe in the BJP’s concept of cultural nationalism. I believe no nation can be strong unless it has a defining culture. The defining culture can be assimilative; I don’t want to say that it is Hindu culture or Muslim culture. There are many countries who describe their culture in religious terms. In India, I don’t think that is possible, but there is a cultural bonding in India which cuts across communities. But cultural bonding is important. I think anybody who is not committed to that cultural concept of nationalism is somewhere negating the Indian identity.
So the BJP’s idea of cultural nationalism had an impact on me, and continues to impact me. And I believe the rest of my working life will be devoted to promoting it to the best of my ability.
You started as a journalist and continue to be one, but along the way you also joined politics. Does it get tricky to remain a journalist and an editor, and be a politician as well?
Yes, it is very tricky. I don’t think it’s an easy thing to handle. I have, at times, faced great dilemma on this issue. I’ve seen other examples. I know many editors, many proprietors have political leanings, their newspapers and magazines have political leanings. And I’ve spent four years in Britain, turbulent years when Mrs (Margaret) Thatcher was at her peak. The Labour party, which I had joined at one stage, was fighting hard. But I found during the one election that I was there, that newspapers took clear-cut positions. The editorials in newspapers on polling day said, “Please vote for X” or “Please vote for Y”. So newspapers had very clear positions. And personally, having seen all that, I grew to believe there is nothing wrong in that, provided you declare your intentions. Which means, be honest about it, don’t do it surreptitiously. Don’t try to colour the news, don’t try to cloak your editorial policy in all kinds of niceties and homilies when you actually mean that you support the Congress or you support the BJP. Come clean. I think people appreciate it. And in a democracy, there is the multiplicity of choice, the plurality that defines democracy, and the media also has to be plural.
How do you feel the role the media plays in electoral politics, in influencing and informing voters, changed over the years?
Once upon a time there was only print. Then came television, then social media. Now there’s a combination of everything. We assume the media is an enlightened part of our society. People working in the media have a lot more information than ordinary people. They can distil it, they can present it in a manner that is intelligible to people. They disseminate news and they disseminate views as well. That is how ordinary people get to know what’s happening in the country. And there are multiple views. I think the influence of media in determining people’s choices has increased enormously and will increase further as democracy deepens.
So you see this as an all-good thing.
I think it’s very positive.
Coming to the BJP in West Bengal. Why do you feel the party hasn’t managed to find a foothold in the state until now?
It is a great irony. The (Bharitya) Jana Sangh was formed by Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. And in the first general election of 1952, the BJP won three seats in the first Indian parliament – two of which were from Bengal. Along with Shyama Prasad Mukherjee was – and you would be surprised to know this – Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee, father of Somnath Chatterjee. These were the two people representing the (Akhil Bharitya) Hindu Mahasabha and Jana Sangh.
However, a huge amount of migration happened from East Pakistan thereafter, and the refugees eked out their existence in squalid and miserable conditions. It is the communists, who seized the moment and the imagination of the people. And so it became a fight between the Congress, which was the party of many a landlord, and the more affluent people and the communists, who were for the downtrodden. The BJP – or the Jana Sangh, as it was in those days – was squeezed out.
And the party has seriously neglected Bengal, although it is its birthplace in many senses. We have not been able to build an organisation there the way we have managed in the rest of the country. The ideological influence of leftism is still is very, very strong in Bengal, and the kind of nationalist ideal, which we have managed to promote in most of North India, has not been there in Bengal and large parts of the south. I think the Marxist influence is pretty pervasive, which is why in Kerala, Bengal and Tripura, the BJP hasn’t made headway. But I believe this fortress is cracking and it’s a matter of time before the Marxist hegemony of intellectual thought in Bengal, Kerala and Tripura collapses.
According to media reports there is a BJP wave in the country. Is it influencing Bengal in anyway? For example, you know Bengal has always had a very strong cadre-based politics. So are you seeing more enrolments in the BJP now than before?
See, the enrolment has been very good. Last year, when we had the renewal of membership and our various other frontal organisations like the Bhartiya Majdoor Sangh, the ABVP, the Bhartiya Yuva Morcha, these have all grown in strength. Bengal cannot remain in isolation from the rest of the country politically.
You see, the CPM or the Left Front were the predominant force in Bengal from 1977 onwards. In 1984, Indira Gandhi was tragically assassinated. By then, the Congress had been virtually wiped out in Bengal. But in that one election in 1984 under Rajiv Gandhi’s leadership, out of nowhere the Congress won 16 parliamentary seats in Bengal. Many candidates were unheard of and CPM leaders were totally taken aback. They had expected to sweep the polls completely as they had done in the previous one. In 1984, 16 Congress candidates were elected in Bengal. In the next election, they were all routed. Which means that the emotional surge, which happened in the rest of the country after Indira Gandhi’s death affected Bengal deeply.
I’m not comparing the situation to that. But what I am trying to say is that there is an emotional surge that is going on in the whole of the country right now. And I travel a lot, to almost every part of the country, and I see the Modi factor becoming very, very prominent. People believe he’s a decisive leader; they want a decisive government. I believe Bengal cannot be untouched by what’s going on in the rest of the country and definitely the BJP’s performance in Bengal will be significantly better this time.
Last polls, the BJP won one seat from Bengal. This year, the NDTV Opinion Polls say the NDA won’t get any seats.
See, that’s all wrong. Last time, the seat we won was in alliance with the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) and Jaswant Singh was elected with a huge majority from Darjeeling. This year the BJP has again struck a deal with the GJM for two seats – Darjeeling – where Surinder Singh Ahluwalia has been named as candidate, and Alipurduar, which is a reserved constituency. I therefore expect that at least these two seats the BJP should definitely be able to win straight away. But we have to try to win some seats on our own. We have won seats. Tapan Sikdar and Satyabrata Mukherjee were minsters in (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee’s government. But that time we were in alliance with Mamata Banerjee.
Do you think a pre-poll alliance with the TMC (Trinamool Congress) would have been beneficial for the BJP in West Bengal?
Well, we didn’t break it. She moved away. I don’t want to comment on her kind of politics, but all I can say is that she is not a very reliable partner. We regard her as a part of the larger NDA family in the sense that she has once been a part of the NDA. And if she wishes to come back, of course the doors will be open. But, at the moment, I don’t see any such possibility. She’s moved to a position where she’s aggressively wooing a community and that is not a part of the BJP’s brief. So I don’t see much prospect of a pre-poll alliance at all. Post-poll, we will see. Hopefully we won’t need allies.
What are some of the concerns you have about your constituency?
I know the constituency pretty well, because my family has been living there for the last 150 years. I have spent a part of my childhood there, I have studied in a Bengali medium school there. So I am not a so-called completely, cut off, westernised English-speaking elite – an object of much ridicule in politics.
I said to a friend the other day, “Look, what I remember of my childhood, going back almost 50 years, is the poverty and stagnation.” Nothing has changed. The buildings remain the same; the roads remain as narrow and potholed. There is no visible prosperity. A few new shops have come up, glass and concrete. Some promoter driven apartment blocks have come up, really small little matchboxes.
The countryside is so prosperous, our land is so fertile. And yet, farmers are living in penury. Almost every two years, there is a glut on the potato market. Two years ago, I remember, farmers literally threw out potatoes in plastic jackets so they could get run over by tractors and buses, because potatoes were selling at 50 paisa a kilo. At that time, in Delhi, potatoes were selling at Rs 12 a kilo. Now, this is serious injustice. My first priority will be on agriculture. We have to provide a stable agricultural market. There is no marketing network at all.
Second, IT. Hooghly is a very talented place. It is the birthplace of Bankim Chandra (Chatterjee) who wrote Bande Mataram in his house, which very close to my house. So many great intellectuals of Bengal were born there, including Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. Even today, the talent is enormous. Students from Hooghly do very well when they move out of Hooghly. I want them to stay in Hooghly. To set up an IT park so that people can get jobs there and the IT industry flourishes. Land should not be taken. It was wrong to try and set up industry there on fertile land. Why should you? You must use the fertile land to promote agriculture and marketing.
And there is enough land. All those jute mills along the river are shut. Along with development of infrastructure, it’s such a beautiful town, one of the oldest in the country with Portuguese, Dutch, British influences. The neighbouring Chandan Nagar was a French enclave. So, a mixture of cultures, architecture and heritage – it can really be promoted very beautifully. I think Hooghly has enormous potential, which nobody has paid attention to.
How much is the Singur factor relevant, because it is a part of your constituency, and how do you think it will affect the way people are voting?
See, there is a deep sense of betrayal and resentment in Singur. Farmers gave up their land, many of them actually did so voluntarily. And they are really angry and frustrated that nothing has happened. They believed industry would come up, that their children would get jobs, the economy around would prosper. Now that land has become unusable, the whole thing is lying fallow, with a few barren sheds put up by Tata Motors.
I need to examine this problem more closely to find a solution. But, it is definitely a criminal waste for fertile land to lie like that. Now that it has been taken over, we have to find a way to fulfil farmers’ expectations, whether it is through industry, agro-processing, or whatever it may be.
What has happened here instead is that the West Bengal government gives the farmers a certain amount of money every month, some Rs 2,000 or Rs 4,000, and some subsidised food. This is criminal. You can’t make beggars out of farmers who want to be part of or partners in the industrial growth of Bengal. I’ll propose to work out a scheme whereby something is done, the farmers will get jobs, the economy around it grows. Banks had opened branches, there were outlets of Cafe Coffee Day and so on in anticipation that this place was going to boom. But it didn’t boom. I won’t let it stay like that. In the shortest possible time, Singur will become a boomtown. That’s my promise to the people.
You have been on several committees as a two-term Rajya Sabha MP. Are there any particular areas of policy and legislation on the national level that you would like to take up were you to be elected as an MP in the Lok Sabha?
I have served in the Committee of Rural Development for five years in my first term as Rajya Sabha MP, and for one year in my second term. The MNREGA legislation went through us. The previous Land Acquisition, Relief and Rehabilitation Bill eventually did not see light of day because the government replaced it with a new bill, also which we had worked on – four or five of us cutting across party lines. There was CPM, there was me from BJP, there were several others from other parties as well, there was the Congress’s Sandeep Dikshit in that committee. And I think we worked out a very good structure in both these cases. So I became, I think, fairly knowledgeable on rural economic growth and development.
I’m right now a member of the Committee on Urban Development. Now I want to change to the focus to urban because I am deeply worried about this completely unplanned, chaotic urban growth. India needs cities. We must build 50 more cities in the next 20-25 years. Not complete cities, but let’s start the process. Because people will migrate, and they will crowd already overcrowded cities, and slums will come up. Go to any small town in UP, and you’ll see the chaos. Unchecked growth, sewers overflowing, traffic jams all around because of hundreds of thousands of new cars. There is no public transport, no public sanitation, and no public housing. I hope to be able to serve in this area and influence policy making so that there is planned and sustainable urban growth in India over the next 50 years.
(Part of a multimedia series for India.com and DNA)