At Brigade rally, speeches soar but unity test lies ahead
Soaring speeches were delivered, gracious gestures exchanged, clever slogans worked the crowds and expectations ran high. So did reminders of the enormity of challenge that lay curled round the corner.
Leaders of 23 Opposition parties held aloft their entwined hands at the Brigade Parade Grounds on Saturday and told the multitude looking up to them that a united fight against the Narendra Modi government alone could “restore democracy” and “protect the Constitution”.
If the uncommon consensus raised the prospect of a nationwide anti-BJP front for the general election, an immediate task was set by Arun Shourie, who drew attention at the event as a former BJP minister but whose words carried the acuity of the editor that had once made him a household name.
“People have lost confidence in Modi-Shah. But people have to be given the confidence that you will remain together,” Shourie told the Opposition leaders on a day that scored high on atmospherics.
Virtually the who’s who of the Opposition — including a former Prime Minister and three serving and five former chief ministers — had assembled at the United India rally, responding to a call from Mamata Banerjee.
“Everyone has come together for the sake of the country. The beginning of the end of the BJP started today from the Brigade…. They have passed their expiry date,” the Bengal chief minister summed up after 22 speakers had stressed the need for a combined fight against Modi.
Most of the guests complimented Mamata for the initiative to bring them together.
Saturday’s event was just a “beginning”, former Prime Minister Deve Gowda cautioned in his speech. He underlined that the road ahead would be “difficult” and advocated regular meetings among the leaders to sort out any differences on seat shares and to draw up a common agenda.
“Seat-sharing is not so easy. I can say that from bitter experience. It is a Herculean task. Now there is no JP (Jayaprakash Narayan), no Acharya Kripalani (who campaigned against Indira Gandhi and the Emergency). I don’t want to go into the past,” Gowda said.
“We haven’t much time. The Election Commission is likely to notify the polls on March 1.”
The tangible outcome of the four-and-a-half hours the leaders spent on the dais was a decision to hold at least two more such conclaves: in Amaravati and Delhi, hosted by respective chief ministers Chandrababu Naidu and Arvind Kejriwal.
It was the oaths and optics of unity, however, for which the meeting stood out.
- First, speaker after speaker emphasised that it was time to bury differences and together take on the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duopoly. Several leaders cited how arch-rivals Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party had joined hands in Uttar Pradesh for the Lok Sabha polls.
Mamata equated the prevailing situation in the country to a “Super Emergency”, saying it was worse than the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi. The Trinamul leader chanted the slogan: “Badal do, badal do, Delhi mein sarkar badal do (change the government in Delhi).”
Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge read out a message from Sonia Gandhi, who wished the rally success and underscored the importance of the occasion.
“The upcoming Lok Sabha election will not be (an) ordinary one. It will be an election to restore the nation’s faith in democracy, defend our secular ethos and heritage, and defeat the forces that are trying to sabotage the Constitution of India,” Sonia said in her message.
- Second, most of the speakers underscored that the key to winning the voters’ trust was to convince them that the Opposition had come together and would stay together. Shourie’s appeal was made in this context.
So gimlet-eyed were those looking hard for blunders that when Sharad Yadav made a slip of the tongue and mixed up Bofors and Rafale, a troll army celebrated it as the main event of the day.
- Third, each heavyweight dutifully declared that who became the prime ministerial candidate was not the issue: the objective was a united battle against Modi.
“There is no need to think about (who will be) the Prime Minister…. We’ll decide that after the election,” Mamata said.
- Fourth, the Opposition leaders vowed to stand by one another when the BJP let loose on them its “newfound allies” — a term that, Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav explained, referred to the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate.
Mamata said: “There is courtesy in politics, but the BJP does not follow it. Those who are not with the BJP are called thieves.”
The Modi government has been targeting Opposition leaders who have spoken against the BJP, she said, pointing out that Sonia Gandhi, Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati and herself had not been spared.
- Fifth, speaker after speaker referred to the hot-button issues that have affected everyday life, and flagged the scandals the government has been battling.
Each highlighted the pain caused by the demonetisation and what they described as the faulty implementation of the GST before drawing attention to the government’s poor record in job creation. Repeated references were made to the Rafale scam, peppered with questions on Modi’s integrity.
- Sixth, almost all the speakers — especially Jayant Chaudhary of the Rashtriya Lok Dal and Karnataka chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy — flagged how agrarian distress had spread across rural India, to be met with indifference by the Modi government.
- Finally, although no pre-poll alliance was announced or seat-share strategy discussed, there was broad agreement that the strongest Opposition force at each place would fight the local NDA candidate.
Former Union minister Yashwant Sinha suggested the idea of one Opposition nominee against each BJP candidate.