Leaders of 22 Opposition parties held a virtual meeting called by interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi, on May 22, to launch a coordinated attack against the Centre’s handling of the ongoing coronavirus crisis andlockdown. The meeting went on for over four hours and ended with parties formalizing an 11-point charter of demands and asserting that “this is neither the time for government at the Centre to indulge in showmanship nor one-upmanship”.
The substance of the charter of demands was a reiteration of what these parties, particularly Congress, have been demanding the Centre ever since the lockdown was first clamped on March 25. There was the now-familiar call for direct cash transfer of Rs. 7500 per month to all families outside the income tax bracket for six months as also the demands for free distribution of 10 kg of food grain to those in need and to increase the MG-NREGA work days to 200. Ramping up health infrastructure to contain the spread of the pandemic which has now claimed nearly 3600 lives was part of the charter as was the need for communicating a clear exit strategy from the lockdown. Relief for migrant workers, annulment of the new labour laws, restoration of Parliamentary functioning and oversight, immediate procurement of the Rabi harvest at the MSP and a revised economic package to replace the “propaganda” of the Rs. 20 lakh crore package completed the litany of demands.
The merits of these demands and the Centre’s obstinate refusal to acknowledge them have been all too obvious over the past two months. The past six years have also demonstrated that pressure from the Opposition rarely yields the desired result; invariably it only strengthens the resolve of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to stay its course.
In effect, such meeting of minds among Opposition parties serves little purpose other than the leaders drawing solace from their shared political misery and salving the bruised egos of each other – succinctly, it is a ‘we are all in the same boat’ moment. The actual implications of these meetings, thus, are reflected in their political messaging and not so much in the government’s response to the laundry list of demands that are put forth.
The key political takeaways from Friday’s meeting were many; ranging from the obvious to the more subtle. With Sonia taking the initiative to bring together leaders of the 22 parties – including chief ministers Mamata Banerjee, Uddhav Thackeray and Hemant Soren and regional satraps H.D. Deve Gowda, Sharad Pawar, M.K. Stalin, Omar Abdullah, Tejashwi Yadav, Badruddin Ajmal – the primacy she continues to enjoy in the Opposition bloc was evident. The Opposition parties represented in Friday’s meeting collectively account for 138 MPs in the Lok Sabha, a seemingly inconsequential number given the BJP’s brute majority of 303 seats in the House. But, as Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala put it, these parties “represent over 60 per cent of India’s people”, considering the sway they hold in states large and small.
Equally notable was the exclusion of Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party. The BSP, SP and AAP, all parties with which the Congress unsuccessfully explored alliances during last year’s Lok Sabha polls, no longer fit the description of “like-minded Opposition parties” in Sonia’s view. That Naveen Patnaik’s BJD, K. Chandrasekhar Rao’s TRS or Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSR Congress have veered towards the BJP, though officially staying out of the NDA coalition, has been clear from the deference these parties have routinely shown to Modi in recent years. As for TDP’s N. Chandrababu Naidu, his brief dalliance with the Congress is now a memory that the two parties hope to wish away.
In terms of perception, there were some clear gains for the Congress party, especially Sonia. This was the first time Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray attended a meeting of Opposition parties called by Sonia. The newest entrant into the UPA fold, Thackeray’s Sena, which is has a ruling alliance with Congress and Sharad Pawar’s NCP in Maharashtra, had skipped the last joint Opposition meet called by Sonia in January to discuss the controversial CAA-NRC nexus.
Thackeray’s participation in Friday’s meeting along with close aide Sanjay Raut shows the ‘unlikely’ Sena-Congress-NCP mahayuti is not as tenuous as it was in its early days. Congress also made an extra effort to keep Thackeray in good humour, deflecting any blame that may come his way for presiding over the worst coronavirus outbreak in the country towards the Centre. Surjewala told the press after the meeting that the state was fighting the pandemic with every resource it had but that the Centre was crippling Maharashtra’s coffers by not releasing over Rs. 16000 crore owed to the state as part of GST dues.
Arvind Kejriwal, Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav were notablee absentees.
Sonia also managed a coup of sorts by ensuring not just the participation of the Trinamool Congress but also of Mamata Banerjee herself, despite the presence of Left leaders Sitaram Yechury and D. Raja in the discussion. Though Banerjee shares a personal rapport with Sonia, she had rebuffed the Congress party’s overtures in recent times, famously boycotting the January anti-CAA joint Opposition meet by asserting she would “oppose CAA but walk alone”. The Congress party’s alliance with the Left Front in Bengal had cost it Banerjee’s assured support. With the BJP stridently making in-roads in the eastern state, Banerjee perhaps sees no political harm in sharing a platform with the Left parties as long as she does so on her terms. Sonia displayed some dexterity in preventing a Trinamool boycott by assuring Banerjee beforehand that no adverse comments would be made by the Left on the Bengal government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and that her views on the charter of demands would be taken with the same seriousness as those of her archrivals from the Left parties.
While Banerjee and Thackeray added heft to the meet, the absence of BSP, SP and AAP also exposed the mirage of Opposition unity. Yet, the Congress may see a silver lining in the renewed antagonism coming its way from Mayawati and in Akhilesh’s coldness. The absence of the bua and bhatija of UP politics comes at a time when Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has taken command of micro-managing the Congress party’s revival plans in the state. Mayawati and Akhilesh, who lead the two electorally formidable regional parties of the state, have largely been silent on the Centre and UP government’s handling of the pandemic and the migrant crisis caused by the lockdown. Priyanka has adroitly positioned herself and her party as the voice of the Opposition in UP for now despite a fledgling cadre and no real electoral presence of the Congress in the state.
Priyanka’s offer to provide buses to ferry migrants of the state has brought chief minister Yogi Adityanath and the BSP supremo on the same side of the political divide. Adityanath and Mayawati have been sharply critical of Priyanka’s “politicization of the crisis”. The Congress believes that by assiduously courting the migrants, both Rahul and Priyanka could infuse fresh life into their party as the migrant exodus directly impacts a substantial vote bank, amorphous yet distinct, which includes within its penury-stricken confines Dalits, adivasis, OBCs and even some forward castes. UP still has over a year before the assembly polls and Priyanka, undoubtedly, will need more than just her migrant-outreach to rebuild Congress in the state. However, if political rivals in the BJP, BSP and SP continue to keep her as the centre of their criticism, they would unwittingly propel Priyanka as the key political figure of UP behind whom those disillusioned with stranglehold of the current satraps may rally.
The joint Opposition meeting, thus, may achieve little in terms of forcing the Centre to take more strident measures in combating the pandemic and its economic fallout. If the government does accept any of the demands put forth by the 22 parties, the Congress can always take credit for Sonia’s initiative of bringing all these parties together in the interest of the nation. Politically though, the Congress has much to gain, especially if it succeeds in ensuring the longevity of this bonhomie -– and of the antagonism displayed by its rivals.