New Delhi: The Covid-19 pandemic seems to have brought together the opposition, which Friday decided to devise a “common action plan” to take on the Modi government over its handling of the migrant labourers issue and alleged discrimination against non-BJP-led states.
As many as 22 opposition parties held a meeting Friday as part of an initiative led by Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi and released an 11-point charter of demands.
Those in attendance included West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray of the Shiv Sena, and Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM). National Conference leader Omar Abdullah, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Tejashwi Yadav, and Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) attended too.
Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati and Samajwadi Party (SP) leader Akhilesh Yadav did not attend the meeting. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was not invited, sources privy to the meeting said.
Opposition leaders have continued to meet on and off since the 2019 Lok Sabha elections — which was marked by a show of opposition unity — and Friday’s meeting once again showcased their consolidation, this time amid the Covid-19 crisis.
The action plan will be formulated by a group of senior leaders from the bloc, the sources said.
“This meeting is the first step in that direction (formulating an action plan) and this smaller group will be formed to chart out a plan of action that the opposition can take,” said a senior leader who attended the virtual meeting Friday.
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“This is separate from the charter that has been issued with a series of demands that the opposition as a whole has made. This group will be formed within a week.”
The charter of demands
The charter issued by the opposition leaders lists multiple demands for the central government. The demands listed include a direct cash transfer of Rs 7,500 per month to all families outside the income tax bracket for six months, and free distribution of 10 kg/month foodgrains to the needy for the next six months. They have also demanded that the number of work days under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) be increased to 200, and that all migrant workers returning to their home states in light of the lockdown be given free transportation.
“Provide accurate and relevant information on Covid-19 infections and goalposts vis-à-vis testing, infrastructure and containing spread. Reverse all unilateral policy decisions, particularly the annulment of labour laws,” said the charter, referring to decisions taken by BJP-ruled states such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Goa to undertake significant changes in labour laws that make them industry friendly.
The opposition leaders have also demanded that Parliament proceedings be restored immediately. Parliament was adjourned indefinitely in March in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a statement issued after the meeting, the leaders said states are systematically being discriminated against by the Modi government.
“The like-minded parties believe that this is neither the time for the government at the Centre to indulge in showmanship nor one-upmanship. This is the time for a gigantic collective endeavour. This is what the people of India need, and this is what the people of India demand,” they said.
“It is important that the Government of India reaches out and engages in a dialogue with all political parties in a systematic manner, listen seriously to the suggestions that we have to make, activate parliamentary institutions like standing committees and be genuine in helping the states financially and otherwise.”
What different leaders talked about
Talking about the opposition’s decision to join hands, a second leader said people are “expecting us to evolve a mechanism to stand with them”.
“Covid-19 has meant that social distancing is crucial but we have to be on the streets with these vulnerable people,” the second leader added. “This is not the time to remain quiet. We have to reach out to the people, which is why this group has been formed.”
Sources aware of proceedings at Friday’s meeting said Congress leader Rahul Gandhi addressed the participants and raised concerns over the surge in Covid-19 cases.
“I am quite clear that the Covid curve will continue to rise, though I hope I am proved wrong,” he was quoted as having said.
Sonia Gandhi, who chaired the meeting, urged the central government to refrain from “using the coronavirus pandemic for personal gains”, sources said.
The meeting, which lasted four hours, saw the opposition leaders appeal to PM Modi to take the political parties into confidence and engage with them in a systematic manner.
While RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav urged all opposition parties to connect regularly on issues where they shared opinions, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee is said to have talked about the difficulties being faced by the state because of the lockdown.
“The CM also raised the problems being faced by migrant workers returning to the state and demanded financial assistance… She also apprised the Congress president of the huge losses the state has suffered in the aftermath of cyclone Amphan,” a source in the Trinamool Congress said.
Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren, an ally of the Congress, took up the need to make changes to MGNREGA to benefit more rural people, also noting that the state was suffering because of the goods and services tax (GST).
“Our state is not getting its share on time. The state’s finances are constrained. Although the central government has announced a stimulus package, there is a need to focus more on the unemployed, migrant workers and farmers,” Soren said in the meeting.
According to sources, Thackeray talked about the BJP’s ‘balcony agitation’ Friday, which was aimed at rallying public support against what the BJP describes as the Maharashtra government’s poor handling of the coronavirus crisis.
“He clearly pointed out that all political parties had decided that we have to shun politics as we have to counter Covid-19. But it seems BJP is the first one to indulge in it,” said a third leader privy to the meeting. “Mamata also was critical but she was quite distraught with the cyclone and during the video meeting she was also keeping an eye on the situation in West Bengal,” the leader added.
‘Modi govt centralising all power’
Calling for Parliament to be restored, Communist Party of India (CPI) MP D. Raja, who attended the meeting, told ThePrint, “In the name of fighting the pandemic, the Modi government is centralising all power in its hands, thereby undermining democracy and India’s federal structure.”
Raja said the economy had been sinking since before the Covid-19 pandemic took root, adding that the Prime Minister and the finance minister had “just tried to justify their disastrous economic programme and policy by announcing the Rs 20 lakh crore package”.
“The stimulus is nothing but a sell-off. In the name of self-reliance, the government is dismantling PSUs by pushing private participation in strategic and non strategic sectors,” he added.
Asked about the absence of BSP and SP leaders, senior Congress leader Randeep Singh Surjewala said they were invited but did not attend. “They will have to answer whether they are not in agreement with the issues and charter we have issued to give respite to the poor and the vulnerable,” said Surjewala.
Discussing the matters taken up at the meeting, Surjewala said they included the Modi government’s alleged GST dues of Rs 16,000 crore to Maharashtra.
“All the 22 political leaders said it in one voice that today is not the day for politics but it is to fight Covid-19. But if you will weaken the state governments and not give them funds, won’t it weaken the fight against Covid-19? Why has the Rs 16,000 crore, GST money the government needs to give to Maharashtra, not been given? Not only Maharashtra, other states are also suffering,” Surjewala added.
Asked whether the opposition wants parliamentary proceedings to begin again, Surjewala said it is important, adding that the legislature is functioning virtually in many countries.
This is an updated version of the report
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