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Oppn unity cannot break over issue of UPA chief, first must oust BJP, Mallikarjun Kharge says

In an interview to ThePrint, Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge says time to decide who will be UPA chairperson will come, but other issues must be dealt with first.

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New Delhi: Rahul Gandhi has taken a lead role in bringing the Congress and opposition parties together and forging a united front against the BJP for the 2024 general election, but has not positioned himself as the UPA chairman at present. This issue should, however, not break this new unity, said Mallikarjun Kharge, leader of the opposition in Rajya Sabha and senior Congress leader.

In an interview with ThePrint Saturday, he said, “Rahul Gandhi ji has repeatedly said that we should come together… first we should fight against the BJP, oust the BJP, then other things will follow. To make disunity, such problems are created: ‘Who is going to be the UPA chairperson’. At present Sonia Gandhi ji is there. She is doing her best. Tomorrow when the high command makes a decision, somebody will come. On that issue only our unity should not break. It will not break, I hope,” the senior leader said.

Kharge said that he hopes that regional parties will agree to work unitedly for 2024, otherwise the “country’s freedom will be in peril”.

“Regional parties will fight for their rights in the local elections, on local issues, problems … But on national issues for Parliament election, they should agree to go together. I hope they will. Because there is still time,” Kharge said, noting that regional parties are “also afraid of the current rule”.

“Sonia Gandhi ji is calling the opposition party leaders to talk on 20 August, Rahul Gandhi ji is also appealing and he himself has taken a lead in Parliament. So, I hope people of other parties will join in this fight and we will get success,” Kharge said.

Although the issue of the coalition’s leadership had surfaced some while back, a decision will be taken when the time comes, Kharge told ThePrint.

“What happened in 1996? Did anybody expect that all opposition parties would rally around and support Deve Gowda at that time? Situation will show the way.”

In 2004, nobody expected Manmohan Singh would become PM, he said, citing another example.

“Nobody (had been) projected at that time. Sonia Gandhi ji worked throughout the country, she toured and mobilised (support) and we were the single largest party with a majority… We took help from other like-minded political parties and the government was formed. That’s why we are saying, if democracy is saved, our fundamental rights are saved, then only such decisions will come. Otherwise, the people who are dictators, autocrats, will rule,” he said.

In recent weeks, opposition parties showed a rare unity in Parliament during the monsoon session. Proceedings in both Houses had been disrupted amid the parties demanding a debate on several issues, including the Pegasus ‘hacking’ controversy and the three laws farmers have been protesting against since last year.

Also read: Disruption in Parliament isn’t new. But there was a new aggression in this monsoon session

‘Not acceptable if anyone makes the party weak’

Last week, some Congress leaders, at a dinner party at Kapil Sibal’s residence, had spoken about the need to elect a full-time Congress president. The dinner was attended by a host of opposition leaders. Kharge said that though he was not there and is not aware of what discussions took place, he was of the opinion that “internal issues can be discussed in the party”.

“Our party’s unity, our party’s any plus or minus point, that cannot be decided before other political parties. That is my view. Whatever, they might have said there, it is their view but we will not approve. We will oppose such moves … If anybody speaks outside and makes the party weak, it is not acceptable,” he said.

He added that more than a year, this Covid pandemic has been there and everybody is working on this issue. “At such a time, if anybody raises the voice of dissent, it is not good. It’s not good for the party, it’s not good for the workers who are sacrificing.”

Also read: Democracy needs opposition. But Modi govt wants to show leaders as Parliament ‘miscreants’

‘Blaming opposition for disrupting Parliament not right’

The leader of the opposition (LoP) in Rajya Sabha said that this is the first time that all 15-16 parties joined together and decided to follow a common agenda to fight the ruling BJP in both houses of Parliament.

“First was Pegasus, second was Covid, third was the farmers’ issue, fourth inflation and diesel petrol hike, and economic crisis. We gave notice in Rajya Sabha under rule 267 and in Lok Sabha they gave notice of adjournment motion. But the government did not agree to this … So we had to protest. Blaming the opposition (for disruption) is not right,” Kharge said.

The LoP said that Congress and the opposition parties insisted on the Pegasus issue because it is very important for the country, for citizens. “… our fundamental right, our privacy, our freedom of expression, everything is involved in the Pegasus (issue) … because they have used the spyware throughout the country on important leaders. They did not spare anybody whether he is a judge, chief justice, whether even press, opposition leaders, even army people … on everybody, right from individual to institutions,” he said.

The Pegasus controversy refers to an expose by a global consortium of media houses, including The Wire in India, in which they claimed a long list of politicians, activists and civil servants among others were targeted using the Israeli spyware Pegasus. The NSO, which owns Pegasus, said its software was sold only to “vetted” governments and their agencies, leading to questions being raised about who funded the alleged targeting of Indian nationals.

The list of names put out by the consortium — the first tranche of which was released on the eve of the monsoon session beginning — includes Rahul Gandhi, IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, Trinamool Congress leader Abhishek Banerjee and political strategist Prashant Kishor among others.

Kharge said the government gave the impression that because of disruption by the opposition, other important issues could not be taken up. But other issues were already ready.

“If I don’t have a right to speak, then how can I take farmers’ issue, how can I take other issues? … The basic thing is my freedom. It’s our fundamental right. If that goes, nothing will be available for me… any instrument to talk in the house. That’s why we are fighting. What could have happened. Suppose they would have agreed for 4-5 hours on this subject, the rest of the subjects would have gone smoothly. But they did not do it,” he said.

Kharge further pointed out that the opposition did not ignore other issues at the cost of Pegasus.

“Farmers’ issue we have taken them outside … Rahul Gandhi ji’s tractor rally, and we visited farmers … But the government is adamant. They are not willing to repeal the laws. We are insisting on that. And the Covid, we discussed in Rajya Sabha but they did not discuss in Lok Sabha. Even the OBC bill. That we have discussed. Smoothly we passed … unanimously. Therefore blaming the opposition is not right,” he said.

Also read: ‘What terror are you fighting by spying on Rahul Gandhi?’ — Congress lashes out over Pegasus list

‘Differences in Punjab have been sorted out’

On the recent party infighting that took place in Punjab, with Navjot Singh Sidhu  eventually being made state chief, Kharge said such things happen in a democratic party.

“Some people complain … I have seen in 50 years of my legislative life … in some states there were differences in land reforms but it was a party agenda. Even in Andhra, when Narasimha Rao ji implemented the land reforms act, at that time many of the leaders there opposed it. But the party remained intact. Even in Karnataka, it was opposed. My own experience, I have seen … in Maharashtra, there was also this problem,” he said.

Whatever small differences were there, those have been sorted out by the Congress president. “…some problems that Sidhu had, he also met Rahul Gandhi ji and those suggestions have been taken. I met 150 leaders, including PCC president, MLA, MPs, Rajya Sabha members. All are united. They are saying that we will fight together.”

The changes within the party come as the state readies to go to polls next year.

(Edited by Manasa Mohan)

Also read: Punjab Congress battle isn’t about Navjot Sidhu or Amarinder Singh. It’s about Gandhis

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