It was supposed to be their first “joint” rally — an event that would catapult West Bengal Chief Minister and TMC chief Mamata Banerjee onto the national stage ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. But, days after saying he would support Mamata as the prime minister, social activist Anna Hazare failed to turn up for the rally at Ramlila Maidan on Wednesday.
While the official reason cited was his “ill-health”, sources close to Hazare said he was peeved with the way the rally was publicised. “The rally was promoted in a big manner and given all the hues of a political event. There was talk about how Mamata had managed to get Hazare for the rally. There was also talk about how the rally had failed to get a good response in Delhi,” said sources.
His aide, Datta Awari, however, said Hazare, who arrived in Delhi on Tuesday, was suffering from cough and fever. “He was feverish and suffering from exhaustion. When the TMC leaders came to escort him to the venue, Hazare expressed his inability to accompany them,” said Awari.
Another aide, Sunita Godara, blamed “mismanagement” and faulty planning for the thin crowd — just about 2,000 people — reportedly the real reason why he skipped the meeting.
Mamata, who has 18 MPs in the current Lok Sabha, has set her sights on a national role for herself, although her party’s real chances of a win are limited to the 42 seats in West Bengal. The rally with Hazare, supposed to be the first of many such joint rallies, was billed as a platform to give her a pan-India boost.
But by the time Mamata took the mike, the rally had clearly flopped. Her deputy, Mukul Roy, had failed to convince Hazare despite rushing to Maharashtra Sadan midway through the event. And the crowd, tiring of the Bollywood band, had started to leave for lunch.
Undeterred, Mamata spoke about how not just West Bengal, but Punjab, Bihar, Karnataka are all “my states and I could have started from any of these states”. In an apparent attempt to project a national image, she even tried a smattering of Indian languages — “Sat Sri Akal, Khuda Hafeez, Vanakkam and Inshallah”. She also took potshots at the “communal” leader of Gujarat.
Mamata stressed that it was a “social, not political”, rally, and she had been invited by Hazare’s team. “This is Anna’s rally, we came here at his request. We could have brought people in trains over two days but we did not want to do that because this is not a political rally. My political identity is based on fighting, I can fight alone if required. There are conspiracies by Congress, BJP and CPM against me… pardon my Hindi, it’s not good but I do know a bit of Punjabi and Marathi, though South Indian languages are a problem,” she said.
Pitting the Gujarat model against West Bengal, she said, “How will the BJP come to power? They flaunt the Gujarat model, they need to know that not all states are the same. There is a communal face in Gujarat, not the people of Gujarat but their leader”.
Meanwhile, half-an-hour after Roy returned alone to Ramlila Maidan, Hazare met ex-Army chief General V K Singh who joined the BJP a few days back.
“Anna was very unwell when we met him at around 11:30 am. He had not come here to campaign for a political party but to address the people. There were no people because there had been no mobilisation, the day was wrong. Even TMC leaders admit it should have been on a Sunday evening. It is too sunny now for day rallies. (Hazare aide) Santosh Bharatiya created this confusion, because he told Anna that this is a TMC rally, and he told Mamata that this is Anna’s rally. But he failed to bring the crowds,” said Godara.
Bharatiya, a key person involved in engineering the Anna-Mamata “alliance”, refused to comment.
Speaking to the media after the rally, Mamata sidestepped questions about any joint rallies with Hazare in the future, saying it was his call. “I also have my state to look after, as well as the Northeast and Jharkhand,” she said. The TMC’s first list for seats outside eastern India, that was reportedly kept on hold for Hazare’s nod, was announced late on Wednesday.
Many TMC leaders rued in private about having put their “trust in the wrong place”, saying there would have been no problem getting crowds from West Bengal or even from the neighbouring states of Delhi like Haryana.
Sources said Hazare got peeved when some old IAC supporters informed him that “there were just 1,000 people” at the rally. Minutes after her meeting with him, Godara said Hazare could not attend the rally due to ill health. Sources said Roy tried to relay Mamata’s message that crowds are not always an indicator in politics, but Hazare told him that he was in no condition to attend the rally.
“When I went to meet him (Hazare) today his eyes were red and watering. I did not take too much of his time. Even when I went to meet him last evening he was not well,” claimed Roy.
Meanwhile, expelled AAP MLA Vinod Kumar Binny also attended the rally. “He is a good man, we would like him to contest elections,” said Mamata. Binny, however, did not feature in the TMC’s second list.
— With inputs from Partha Sarathi Biswas in Pune