West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress "cannot be taken for granted" for Opposition unity, said party leader Derek O'Brien on Thursday. Speaking to NDTV on why the party has chosen to abstain in the Vice-Presidential election on August 6, he said that the TMC -- which has 35 MPs -- is not an ally of the Congress and "needs no certificate of ideology on being opposed to the BJP".
He slammed the manner in which the Opposition candidate -- Congress veteran Margaret Alva -- was chosen: "You call a meeting and then say there will be a press conference in 15 minutes... We are the second largest party in Parliament. We want to send a message to the Congress, which has a style of working. We have nothing against the person chosen."
Earlier, Mamata Banerjee's nephew Abhijit Banerjee, TMC National General Secretary, made the announcement in Kolkata: "The way the opposition candidate was decided, without proper consultation... We have decided unanimously to abstain from the voting process."
Mr O'Brien, asked if the problem was specifically with the Congress, said, "Please draw a clear line between the TMC and the formal partners of the Congress," mentioning four of them -- Tamil Nadu's ruling party DMK, Sharad Pawar-led NCP, Lalu Yadav's RJD and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha.
"Of course, there are like-minded parties across the country that we work with, against the divisive and bigoted ideology of the BJP. But not all such parties are allies of the Congress," said Mr O'Brien, party leader in the Rajya Sabha.
He recalled how, in West Bengal last year, the TMC won an election against a Congress-Left alliance, besides the BJP. "That is the context."
Asked if parties miffed with each other could challenge the BJP in 2024, he went back to his state: "What Opposition unity? When Mamata Banerjee won a third term as Bengal CM, Congress and CPM were in cahoots with the BJP."
The TMC's move away is significant as it was one of the prime movers in putting up a joint Opposition candidate for President, Yashwant Sinha, who fought what turned out to be just a symbolic fight against BJP-led NDA's Droupadi Murmu. The Vice-Presidential polls aren't expected to be any different. But Ms Alva is now further weakened as she fights NDA's Jagdeep Dhankhar, with whom the TMC had a fractious relationship when he was Bengal governor until recently.
Mr O'Brien echoed Abhishek Banerjee when he said the TMC was never going to vote for a BJP candidate -- "the question did not arise" -- so it was left with two options, either to back Ms Alva or simply not take part.
He said his party wants Opposition unity. "Remember who called the meeting to choose a joint candidate for President.. But please know, we cannot be taken for granted."