Derek O'Brien: You can't be arrogant or pompous in Parliament

Dec 03, 2017, 17:07 IST | Fiona Fernandez

Parliamentarian and former quizmaster Derek O'Brien offers a ringside view of the controversial, and often, humourous goings-on inside the Parliament in a new book 

How often have you watched the rapid fire round of a quiz show on television, or been at the receiving end of a quizmaster's tracer bullet questions, as you duck to survive?

Some of us might have lived those moments; all the while wishing we could swap roles. Now, imagine what could happen if the quizmaster decides to become a politician, and participate in what can only be called the longest running quiz show in India- in the halls of Parliament?

Derek O'Brien, once India's most popular quizmaster, made his political debut 15 years ago, and is enjoying his new role of the voice of Trinamool Congress in the Rajya Sabha. "Research, research, research," says the articulate leader, about what it takes to survive the volley of questions. O'Brien is ready with his latest book, Inside Parliament (HarperCollins India), which is a collection of insightful political essays on the sanctum sanctorum of Indian democracy.

Derek O Brien (left) with Mamata Banerjee at a press conference after her victory in the assembly elections, in Kolkata, 2016. PIC/GETTY IMAGES
Derek O' Brien (left) with Mamata Banerjee at a press conference after her victory in the assembly elections, in Kolkata, 2016. Pic/GETTY IMAGES 

"Okay, your time starts now," he says in jest, taking this writer back to the time she was a researcher on the Bournvita Quiz Contest team. O'Brien, sporting his characteristic trimmed beard and bandhgala, was fiercely guarding his laptop, and chatting with school teams to ease the tension before the cameras rolled at an Andheri studio. This writer, meanwhile, was prepping Yuvraj Singh for his his upcoming guest appearance in the studio's green room. Daydream time's up; O'Brien says he is ready, one hand on the buzzer.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

What was going on in your mind after you wrapped up writing the book?
[Long pause] I felt like a cricketer who has played T20s, One Day Internationals and Ranji matches, but hasn't yet made his Test debut. After I submitted the book, I couldn't wait for it to release. It takes three to four months, but I recall asking my publisher if we could fast forward the process, so that it would reach bookshelves sooner. I am keen to see reader reactions.
What quality does a Parliamentarian need, to be heard above the din?

You cannot be a solid voice unless you have a party with a clear conviction and ideology. The trust of your party and its leadership is crucial. You can win brownie points with a good speech but that isn't enough. I realise that I am representing 10 crore people from West Bengal each time I speak [in the Rajya Sabha]. A day before I have to deliver a speech, I chat with Mamata di (West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee), and do my own research. Approach a speech knowing your party's views- it makes all the difference.

When you first stepped into Parliament, did you experience self-doubt?
It was overwhelming. Twenty-five years of live and televised quizzing, standing before crowds of 10,000 plus…but this is something else. I started in the back rows, and finally finished in the front row to represent my party. Looking back, I tell myself I haven't done too badly in six years.

What were your earliest lessons as a parliamentarian?
I've been in politics for 15-odd years, six of which have been as parliamentarian. My work in the party helped ground me. Delhi is like a helium gas balloon that you shouldn't get sucked into. There is no need to engage in all-out attacks or get personal with other members; it's possible to be gracious with others while putting your point across. You can't be arrogant or pompous in Parliament.

Despite its diverse views, what do you believe is the strength with which the united opposition can challenge the NDA?
Good question. The diversity is our strength as well as a challenge, where we are able to convey this federal strength/model. Barring Defence and External Affairs, the rest of policy needs to be state-driven. That will be the binding force that we can promote, and also set as a positive agenda.

Of course, it's not a teddy bear's picnic, with the BJP in a majority. But, of late, there have been a series of defensive moves- from the petrol price rollback to corrective measures around GST and the revised dates for the winter session [of Parliament]. There's work to be done, but I'd say, 'Game on'. The people of India are watching. They are not fools. Let them decide.

What is the best compliment you have received as politician?
I was in Burdwan district of West Bengal when a 20-something party worker came up to me and said, "You are taking our voice on behalf of Mamata di to Parliament. Keep doing it." It meant the world to me.

You began your career as a journalist. What role can the media play in providing a responsible platform in a democracy?
Journalists need to be given the freedom to remain fearless in their reportage. It's media owners who can play a role here. I am a great believer in India's democracy. Despite the prevalent censorship, I am confident that things will come around.

Derek the quizmaster or Derek the parliamentarian, who has the correct answers?
When I asked a question as a quizmaster, there was only one correct answer, but with politics, one won't suffice. You need a second, third or even a fourth correct answer.

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