From West Bengal to Barney – noted Indian politician drops by for Meet weekend
By Stuart Laundy - Senior Reporter
IF, perish the thought, political intrigue was ever to grip the shadowy corridors of Barnard Castle Town Council, one member can call on the help of a man with more experience of such things than most.
Cllr Rima Chatterjee, who joined the town council last year, counts among her good friends Derek O’Brien, one of the most influential politicians in India.
Mr O’Brien is the leader of the Trinamool Congress party in the Indian parliament’s upper house, the Rajya Sabha – the equivalent of the UK House of Lords.
Unlike the Lords, however, members of the Indian upper chamber are all elected, not appointed. He has known Cllr Chatterjee and her husband, Roy, for decades and with the Indian parliament in recess, Mr O’Brien made a beeline for Barney during Meet weekend as part of a visit to the UK.
Mr O’Brien, who hails from the West Bengal capital Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), comes from an Anglo-Indian family and can trace his roots to an Irish soldier who served in the subcontinent in the 19th century.
Prior to politics, he made his name as the host of a long running schools quiz show on Indian TV and is also an author – his latest book was the critically acclaimed Inside Parliament – Views from the Front Row.
He joined the Trinamool Congress in 2004, just six years after its formation.
Electoral success came in 2011 when his party defeated the communists, who had ruled the Bengal assembly since 1977 and it was then he was sent to the upper house.
“My party is the third largest party in India. You have the BJP to the right, the Congress party left of centre and Trinamool, which means ‘grass roots’,” he said.
For his first few years in the party, he combined politics and TV, but that is not possible now.
“TV was fun and I did both for about six years, but for the last nine years, only politics. You can’t be a part time politicians in India.
“Quizzing is like the neighbourhood pond; politics is the ocean – it is bigger and there are sharks out there.”
Whereas the dale’s MP Helen Goodman represents about 70,000 constituents, it’s a whole different ball game in India.
“You are talking about large numbers. One MP in India will represent 1.7million people. That’s a lot of people,” said Mr O’Brien. There are many parallels between the UK and Indian systems of government, one of which is the low esteem in which politicians are held.
However, Mr O’Brien remains optimistic.
“India is a truly great democracy and not only am I in parliament, I get to sit in the first nine rows of parliament as leader of my party.
“Whether you are Christian, Muslim, Hindi, Sikh, there is representation.
“We are having our problems, but in the long run, we will overcome them. With all its coughs and colds and occasional bouts of illness, it is still a healthy democracy.”
Turning to Barney, Mr O’Brien seems astonished that his old friends have ended up running a traditional British pub – let alone Rima getting involved in the town council.
“I have known Roy and Rima for 40/45 years – it’s almost a lifetime.
“They are both very enterprising people – even by Indian standards,” he said.