The scene at Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi an hour before the meeting started on Wednesday. Several chairs remained unoccupied even after the meeting started. Picture by Prem Singh
New Delhi, March 12: Anna Hazare lost the battle against Arvind Kejriwal today but Mamata Banerjee was left standing alone on the burning deck in Delhi.
Anna cited a last-minute “chest congestion” to avoid the ignominy of facing a thin crowd on the Ramlila Maidan, the very same theatre he had lorded over in 2012 when Kejriwal was just a disciple.
Which meant the sole “national” factor that kept Mamata company on the national platform was a medley of Hindi songs.
“Aaja aaja main hoon pyar tera… (Come, come, I’m your beloved…),” a band played on the saxophone in the afternoon before the meeting began — a theme that was in tune with the yearning to fill the chairs, many of which were vacant.
When Mamata reached the venue, she waited for some time in the car and then backstage. Once Mukul Roy informed her that Anna had decided not to attend on the advice of doctors, she climbed on to the stage and listened to some songs.
She then took the microphone and pointed out: “This was not our rally. I had come here on the invitation of Annaji…. I have struggled all my life and will continue to struggle even if no one gives company.”
This is the second time in the recent past that Mamata has found herself abandoned while trying to emerge a player in the national capital. She was led up the garden path but dumped by Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh over opposing the candidature of Pranab Mukherjee for President. Mamata eventually supported Mukherjee.
At Ramlila today, Mamata — who never had a political base in Delhi — was feeling the ripples of the battle between Anna and Kejriwal.
The thin crowd proved that Anna may remain a father figure but the children of the anti-corruption movement have followed the course charted by Kejriwal. Much like what happened when the Communist Party split 50 years ago and several of the stalwarts stayed with the CPI while the ranks went to the CPM.
Anna, according to sources, was all dressed up to leave for the ground from Maharashtra Sadan but backed out after reports of “a very poor crowd”. Police reports said the crowd was around 2,000 inside a ground that has a capacity of around 1 lakh.
“How could Anna face an empty Ramlila where thousands had gathered for days together when he had fasted for the Jan Lokpal bill?” asked a Team Anna member, pointing out it would be a big loss of face in front of Kejriwal, the estranged protégé whom Anna wants to teach a lesson.
The thin crowd suggested that Kejriwal has cornered the capital’s pro-change segment — the same space that Anna and, by association, Mamata were trying to occupy.
For the record, Anna aide Sunita Godara cited both health and the poor crowd. “Annaji is not well. He has chest congestion. I don’t know whether he will attend the rally,” Godara said.
Later, she talked of the poor turnout because it was a weekday. “When does public gather? It should be a Sunday and evening time,” she reacted over the poor crowd.
Trinamul refused to take the blame, pointing out that the date and venue were decided by Anna.
The second reason, according to insiders, was Mamata’s insistence to follow in the footsteps of Kejriwal and campaign against Narendra Modi in Gujarat.
Sources close to Anna said the anti-corruption crusader was not keen to campaign with Mamata against Modi.
Anna’s close aides, former army chief V.K. Singh, who has joined the BJP, and Kiran Bedi, who openly roots for Modi, were learnt to have prevailed upon the social activist not to campaign in Gujarat. In the past, Anna had praised the “development work” done by Modi and had never attacked the Gujarat chief minister over the 2002 communal riots.
V.K. Singh called on Anna today at Maharashtra Sadan, soon after the activist decided not to share the dais with Mamata at Ramlila. The former army chief, expected to be fielded by the BJP in the Lok Sabha polls, denied his meeting had any political meaning.
“Can’t I meet Annaji without a cause? He isn’t well. I always meet him when he is Delhi,” Singh said after meeting Anna.
Mamata wanted to canvass against Modi in his state with the intention of sending a message to the Muslims in Bengal that she was committed to opposing the man blamed for one of the worst communal riots in the country.
Asked whether there was a political reason behind Anna skipping the meeting, Mamata chose to side-step the question with a soft smile and a telling comment: “I don’t know. I will not doubt that Annaji is unwell.”
She pointed out that Congress and BJP leaders have been meeting Anna.
At Ramlila, Mamata did not pull punches on Modi. She termed the Gujarat model of development as faulty and, without taking Modi’s name, said: “The Gujarat leader was communal”, was spreading lies and using “paid news” to build his image.
“Child mortality rate in Gujarat is 41 per cent. What have you achieved when your children are not safe?” she asked.
But when she arrived around 2pm, Mamata had appeared a bit perplexed.
Nachiketa had then taken over the stage. “Abhi bhi waqt hai… Is yug mein sabse aage Mamata hai (there is still time… In this age, Mamata is ahead of all),” Nachiketa sang as Mukul, along with an Anna aide, rushed to Maharashtra Sadan.
Mamata climbed the elevated concrete stage around 2.15pm when it was clear that Anna had dumped her at the altar. She sat on the stage in the backdrop of a black-and-white Gandhi bust. Party MP Saugata Roy was by her side.
Biswajit, the matinee idol of the sixties who was later in the evening declared the Trinamul candidate in south Delhi, crooned: “Pukarta chala hoon main.”
Trinamul had also hired a band, which sang “Aaja, aaja”, to entertain the crowd.
Later, as she left the Ramlila ground, Mamata said: “It’s OK.” She also wished “Annaji good health and a long life”.
In the evening, Mamata announced 30 party candidates in the Northeast, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh.