TAKING other Opposition parties by surprise, the Trinamool Congress announced Thursday that it will abstain from voting in the vice-presidential election.
After an hour-long meeting at party chief Mamata Banerjee’s residence, the party said it could not go with the NDA’s Jagdeep Dhankhar but could not support the Opposition’s Margaret Alva either, as it had “not been consulted” on her candidature.
The TMC announcement coincided with counting for the presidential polls, in which Opposition candidate Yashwant Sinha fared even worse than was feared against the NDA’s Droupadi Murmu. While parties put up a brave face to the TMC’s decision, saying the move was not unexpected, in private, leaders expressed shock. According to sources, Congress president Sonia Gandhi had herself spoken to Mamata twice before announcing Alva’s name, and was given to understand that the TMC will support whoever the Opposition chose.
Leaders also admitted it was a blow to the Opposition camp, optics-wise. “It is a symbolic fight. It is not that the vice-president poll is going to be a close election. But the signal that the Opposition is divided will send a very bad message,” a senior Opposition leader said.
Announcing the TMC decision, general secretary Abhishek Banerjee said: “We cannot support Jagdeep Dhankhar who, during his tenure as Governor here, undermined Bengal. You have all seen his mentality and his perspective on the state… On the other hand, Opposition parties chose Margaret Alva, but the process of choosing her was not right. They decided her candidature without proper consultation.”
Referring to the claim by “a senior Opposition leader” that he tried to reach out to Mamata Banerjee, Abhishek said: “But that was after the decision on the candidate was taken. The way the Opposition candidate was decided without consulting a party which has 35 MPs, we have decided to abstain.”
Abhishek said all party MPs were present at the meeting held on Thursday and had put forward their views. “Eighty-five per cent of our MPs are of the opinion (that we should abstain).”
MPs of both Houses of Parliament vote for the vice-president. Election for the post is to be held on August 6.
When asked whether this will dent Opposition unity, Abhishek said: “Opposition unity is not dependent on choosing presidential or vice-presidential candidates… or such polls… One has to rise above ego and self-interest. Opposition unity can be proved by fighting shoulder to shoulder on the streets… We welcome those (parties) which want to take on the BJP on the streets like us.”
According to him, the TMC had proposed a few names and consultation was on. “But they (the other parties) suddenly called a meeting and the venue was changed to Sharad Pawar’s residence. Then they chose a candidate… Margaretji has a very good equation with Mamata Banerjee. But president and vice-president candidates cannot be chosen going by personal equations.”
The Congress and CPM dismissed the TMC’s claim of not being consulted on the matter, while alleging a “hidden pact” between the party and BJP.
CPM Bengal secretary Md Selim said: “Some prominent TMC leaders’ names were not included when the CBI filed a chargesheet in the coal scam investigation recently. We are paying the price now with the vice-presidential election.”
Congress state president Adhir Chowdhury said: “The BJP is trying to tarnish the image of the Congress by calling Sonia Gandhi to the Enforcement Directorate office. All Opposition parties opposed it and published statements on that. Only the TMC and AAP did not. The TMC and BJP are now two sides of the same coin.”
In Delhi, Jairam Ramesh, the Congress general secretary in-charge of communication, called the TMC move “unfortunate but not unexpected”.
An Opposition leader said Mamata had told Sonia that she doesn’t have a candidate and would support one on which the other parties agreed. “(NCP chief) Pawar also spoke to Mamata and she gave the same reply to him.”
Another Opposition leader said that Mamata did not come on the line on July 17, the day the Opposition met and picked Alva. “(TMC MP) Derek O’Brien was informed about the decision on the 17th. To say that they were not consulted is bogus,” one leader said.
CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury said that when Opposition parties met on July 17, they were told that the TMC had called a meeting on July 21 to take a decision on the matter. “It was informed that they will support the candidate on whom there is a consensus among Opposition parties.”
For the Opposition parties, what makes the TMC “turnaround” even more bitter is the fact that it was on Mamata’s initiative that they had rallied around the name of Yashwant Sinha as their presidential candidate.
In a sign of what might come next, National Conference vice-president Omar Abdullah suggested his party too may reconsider its options. “Opposition unity is a bit of a chimera. Ultimately political parties will do what’s in their own interest & that’s as it should be. J&K saw this when we were left high & dry by “friends” in 2019. It’s time for @JKNC_ to do (what) suits the party rather than waste time chasing ghosts,” he tweeted.
Abdullah had attended the Opposition meeting to pick a presidential nominee, but skipped the one for vice-president.
Newsletter | Click to get the day’s best explainers in your inbox
Others referred to the meeting Mamata had with Dhankhar and Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma in Darjeeling a few days before the BJP picked the West Bengal Governor as its vice-president nominee. “The BJP’s announcement about Dhankhar came three days after he supposedly had a courtesy meeting with her and Sarma. Maybe Mamata did not send any leader to the Opposition meeting because she had made up her mind already,” a senior leader said.
Addressing the media in Kolkata, Abhishek said the TMC was open to discussion on any issue with any Opposition party. “We have been able to thwart the BJP. If any Opposition party, be it the Congress, AAP, DMK wants to have discussions with us, we are open for it,” he said.