Updated: August 21, 2021 7:58:12 am
Speaking for the first time on the need for Opposition parties to come together ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, Congress president Sonia Gandhi told top Opposition leaders Friday that there is “simply no alternative” before them but to work “cohesively together”.
At a meeting of 19 Opposition parties, including Congress, Gandhi said all parties have some “compulsions” but it was time to rise above them.
Trinamool Congress chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said the parties should not focus on identifying a “leader”.
“Forget who is the leader, let’s keep our personal interests aside,” she said. She suggested that every Opposition party, including even those not allied with the Congress, should be invited as the “fight is against the BJP”.
“The people are the leaders. Let us set up a core group and work together,” Banerjee said. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi too suggested that the parties should project an “alternate” vision to the BJP, espousing their idea of India.
Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Raut, who attended the meeting along with party chief Uddhav Thackeray, said: “Uddhavji said that in view of the 2024 general elections, the Opposition should unite and Opposition unity should be taken to the people in such a way that people believe in it.”
Sources said it was decided that the leaders will now meet more frequently to arrive at a consensus on developing a “coordination framework” to identify issues to be raised jointly. “This is a beginning,” one leader told The Indian Express.
Referring to the assembly elections next year, CPI general secretary D Raja said the parties should focus on 2022 first and that Opposition parties should work together to fight the elections.
A joint statement issued after the meeting, however, made no mention of 2024 or any electoral strategy. It gave a call for a joint protest action from September 20 to 30.
The meeting via virtual mode was attended among others by Banerjee, DMK chief and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin, Shiv Sena chief and Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, NCP chief Sharad Pawar, JMM chief and Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren, RJD’s Tejaswi Yadav, CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury, CPI’s Raja, PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti, National Conference chief Farooq Abdullah.
Senior Congress leaders including former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Mallikarjun Kharge and A K Antony too attended the meeting, as did RLD’s Jayant Chaudhary, Loktantrik Janata Dal’s Sharad Yadav, RSP leader N K Premachandran and representatives of Assam’s AIUDF, Tamil Nadu’s Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, JD(S), Kerala Congress (M) and the IUML.
Gandhi said the monsoon session of Parliament saw “determined unity” by all Opposition parties. The parties, she said, functioned in a coordinated manner with daily discussions among the floor leaders.
“I am confident that this unity will be sustained in future sessions of Parliament as well. But the larger political battle has to be fought outside it,” she said.
“Of course, 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,” she said.
“This is a challenge, but together 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,” she said.
The compulsions, in fact, were clearly visible. With assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh just months away, the BSP did not attend the meeting. The AAP, which is one of the principal opponents of the Congress in Punjab where assembly elections are due early next year, was not invited to the virtual meeting. TMC’s Banerjee, against whom the Congress fought the recent assembly elections in alliance with the Left, was present — in Kerala, the Congress and Left are adversaries.
The Samajwadi Party too skipped the meeting but its chief Akhilesh Yadav wrote expressing his inability to join as he was travelling in the “interior of the state”.
Gandhi said the 75th anniversary of India’s Independence is “indeed the most appropriate occasion for us to reaffirm our individual and collective resolve” and “let me say for its part, the Indian National Congress will not be found wanting”.
In their joint statement, the parties hit out at the government for “refusing to discuss or answer the illegal usage of Pegasus military spyware to conduct unauthorized surveillance, repeal of the three anti-farmer laws, gross mismanagement of Covid-19 pandemic, runaway inflation and price rise as also spiralling unemployment” and steamrolling legislations in Parliament.
“The Prime Minister, in his Independence Day address, did not focus on a single-issue concerning people’s miseries. The speech was full of rhetoric, empty slogans and disinformation. In fact, it was a repackaging of earlier speeches given in 2019 and 2020. This speech is an ominous warning that the lives of our people will continue to be ruined further,” the statement said.
Stating that procurement of the Pegasus spyware is extremely alarming, it said “the government refuses to answer one straight question – Has it, or any of its agencies purchased the Pegasus Spyware from the Israeli firm – NSO, known for cyber military surveillance? The government must answer and come clean.”
The parties put forth 11 demands to the government: augment vaccine production capabilities in India and procure vaccines globally, implement free cash transfers of Rs 7,500 per month to all families outside the Income Tax bracket, withdraw hikes in Central excise duties on petroleum and diesel, reduce prices of cooking gas, repeal the three farm laws, stop and reverse the unbridled privatisation of the public sector, hold a Supreme Court-monitored judicial enquiry into the Pegasus episode, order investigation into the Rafale deal, release of all political prisoners in Jammu and Kashmir and those in custody under UAPA in the Bhima Koregaon case and anti-CAA protests.
Pawar praised Gandhi for convening the meeting. He said the present situation in India is “very disappointing”.
“The farmers have been agitating for many months. It is a painful picture in a democratic country like India. Economic slowdown, Covid pandemic, unemployment, border tension, issues of minorities… The country is faced with many issues. And the present government has failed to resolve all these issues… those who believe in democracy and secularism… those people who want to work unitedly to protect our country’s democratic values… all of them should come together,” Pawar said in a post on Twitter.
He said it was time for the parties to draw up a programme collectively in a time-bound manner. He said the parties should prioritise issues rather than taking up all issues in one go.
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