Opposition parties must rise above personal compulsions and work together with the aim of unseating the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi said, on Friday, as she chaired a virtual meeting of leaders of 18 like-minded Opposition outfits.
In attendance at the meeting were a host of Opposition satraps including chief ministers Mamata Banerjee, Uddhav Thackeray, MK Stalin and Hemant Soren as well as NCP supremo Sharad Pawar, former J&K CMs Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti. Other prominent Opposition who logged in included CPM's Sitaram Yechury, RJD's Tejashwi Yadav, RLD's Jayant Chaudhary, among others.
At the meeting, a continuation of efforts by various Opposition parties to unite electorally against the BJP, the leaders of all 19 parties agreed that they must "find common ground and come together on issues to take on the BJP and leave the leadership question" to be settled later, said sources. Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, seen as among the Opposition leaders keen on leading a federal front against the BJP, was among the first invitees at the meet to insist that the parties must "forget who will be the leader... this can be settled later". Pawar, the other contender for leading a possible federal front, too agreed with Banerjee, say sources, and asserted that a "united Opposition is the only way to defeat the BJP".
In her opening remarks at the meeting, which also had former prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and former Congress president Rahul Gandhi present, Sonia commended all Opposition parties for working together during the recently concluded monsoon session of Parliament. "The recent Monsoon session of Parliament was a complete washout entirely due to the Government’s obstinate and arrogant unwillingness to discuss and debate urgent issues of public importance", Sonia said, while blaming the Centre for refusing a detailed debate on the "Pegasus snooping scandal that affects each and every citizen, the repeal of the three anti-farmer laws- the agitation of farmers that has been going on for the past nine months, the price rise of essential commodities and the continuing assault on federalism and the institutions of our democracy."
Sonia said that while she was "confident that this unity (of Opposition parties during the monsoon session) will be sustained in future sessions of Parliament as well... the larger political battle has to be fought outside it" and that "the ultimate goal is the 2024 Lok Sabha elections for which we have to begin to plan systematically with the single-minded objective of giving to our country a government that believes in the values of the Freedom Movement and in the principles and provisions of our Constitution".
Conceding that sustaining Opposition unity beyond Parliament proceedings is a "challenge" and said "we can and must rise to it because there is simply no alternative to working cohesively together. We all have our compulsions, but clearly, a time has come when the interests of our nation demand that we rise above them."
While the interim Congress chief may have succeeded in bringing together a galaxy of Opposition satraps to discuss a potential united political future, it was clear that the task ahead for her isn't an easy one. The assembly polls due in UP early next year are expected to be the biggest test for Opposition unity and on that score Sonia's meeting today was instructive of the problems that lie ahead. The two dominant regional Opposition parties in UP - Akhilesh Yadav's Samajwadi Party and Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party - were absent from Sonia's meeting. Although the Congress, say sources, is keen on an alliance with the SP in UP, which has already begun pre-poll seat sharing talks with Jayant Chaudhary's RLD and some other smaller parties, Akhilesh, say sources, has been playing hardball with the Grand Old Party.
Similarly, other Opposition parties like the YSR Congress, BJD, AAP and Akali Dal that had recently sent representatives to rebel Congress leader Kapil Sibal's birthday bash where Opposition unity was discussed, were not invited for Sonia's meet today.
Congress sources say the party's senior leaders will continue reaching out to like-minded parties to broaden the Opposition unity project but admit that for such efforts to pay off, the Grand Old Party too needs to first expeditiously effect a course correction within its organisation. A revamp of the AICC has long been on the cards and may take place within the next month, say sources. There is still no clarity though on when the party, which hopes to be the fulcrum of Opposition unity, will also elect it's full-time president.