It was supposed to be their first “joint” rally — an event that would launch 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, purportedly because of his ill-health.
Mamata, who has 18 MPs in the current Lok Sabha, has set her sights on a national role for herself, though her party’s real chances of a win are limited to the 42 seats in West Bengal. The rally with Hazare was billed as a platform to give her a pan-India boost.
By evening, a blame game had begun, with Hazare’s aide Sunita Godara blaming “mismanagement” and faulty planning for the thin crowd — just about 2,000 people — reportedly the real reason why he skipped the meeting.
Her deputy, Mukul Roy, had failed to convince Hazare despite rushing to Maharashtra Sadan.
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”.
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Meanwhile, half-an-hour after Roy returned alone to Ramlila Maidan, Hazare met former 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 was to come to Ramlila maidan not to campaign for any political party but to address the people”, Godara said that there were no people because there had been no mobilisation.
Addressing the rally, 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”.
Dismissing comparison of Gujarat model against West Bengal, Mamata said, “How will the BJP come to power? They flaunt the Gujarat model but they need to know that not all the states are same.
She went on to list her government’s achievements, including implementation of the Sachar Committee’s recommendations. Outlining her party’s stand against privatisation, she accused the Congress and BJP of “selling the country”.
Mamata took a pot shot at Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi saying not all the people but their leader is a significant communal force.
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.
For hours before Mamata arrived at the venue, TMC leaders Derek O’Brien, K D Singh, Mukul Roy and Sukhendu Sekhar Roy looked on anxiously from the dais at the sparse crowd. Announcements urging those outside to come in did not help, and Hazare’s aide Santosh Bharatiya’s announcement that Delhi Police had stopped many buses had few takers.
Later, 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.
“When I went to meet him (Hazare) on Wednesday, his eyes were red and watering. He was not well,” claimed Roy.
But sources said, Hazare was peeved when some old IAC supporters informed him that “there were just 1,000 people” at the rally. Minutes later, 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.
Meanwhile, the expelled AAP MLA Vinod Kumar Binny also attended the rally. “He is a good man, we would like him to contest elections,” said Mamata.