The Opposition parties are finding it difficult to draw up a common template for next year’s general election campaign even though there is agreement that strategic alliances need to be built both nationally and at the state level to oust the Bharatiya Janata Party from power, sources told The Sunday Guardian.
Sources said that discordant notes over issues such as the Rafale deal, illegal immigration in Assam and the demand for paper ballot have thwarted the Congress and other parties pivotal to the anti-BJP axis from launching a united, blistering attack on the incumbent government.
A source in the All India Congress Committee told this reporter that the Congress is disappointed by the regional parties’ reluctance to join Rahul Gandhi’s tirade against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “The high command’s strategy was to build the steam on Rafale and then hold joint Opposition press meets and rallies and create a popular perception on the street that PM Modi was scam tainted, but so far the regional satraps have remained non-committal despite regular correspondence over this issue,” the source, who is currently looking at the grand old party’s Bihar and Uttar Pradesh campaign, told this reporter.
The sources said that Sonia Gandhi herself raised this issue with some senior Opposition leaders, including West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who met the UPA chairperson recently in New Delhi, but they seemed to be in a wait and watch mode. Sources said that both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi are rattled with the lax support they have received on their claim that the 2016 aircraft deal was a huge scam and could be used to dent the credibility of PM Modi and his government.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who has described the Rafale deal as a “globalised corruption”, is pushing for a joint parliamentary committee probe into it. The Congress maintains that the 36 Rafale jets, worth Rs 524 crore, were bought at an inflated price of Rs 1,600 crore. Gandhi has pegged the scam at Rs 130,000 crore together with off-set contracts to Reliance Defence, the private entity involved in the deal.
Rahul raised the issue at a joint Opposition meet on 16 August, attended also by the Left parties, RJD, JDS, SP among others. But so far only Lalu Yadav, former Bihar Chief Minister who is currently serving a jail sentence in Ranchi in the fodder scam, has been vocal in backing Rahul. In February, the RJD supremo had tweeted that the deal “smacks of nepotism and kickbacks”.
On the contentious issue of the Assam National Register of Citizens, the updated list of which has rendered nearly four million people illegal immigrants, the Congress is shying away from joining the chorus of a vociferous Mamata Banerjee, who has offered the affected people to relocate to her home state, West Bengal.
Says a source in the Congress party, “The NRC is like a double edged sword for us. If we do not come out in support of the four million people, we stand to lose significant minority votes in many pockets in crucial states, including in Uttar Pradesh where the Congress may not be a part of the SP-BSP alliance. Our silence would mean the minorities will root for the SP-BSP in UP, and people like Asaduddin Owaisi in Maharashtra and Andhra and other smaller regional alternatives. On the other hand, if we support the ‘illegal immigrants’ aggressively, it would spoil the soft Hindutva facelift that Rahulji has been building up for many months now to shed the Congress’ perceived anti-Hindu image.”
The Congress has been cautious on treading on the NRC controversy. On 9 August, when a 12-member delegation of Opposition parties submitted a memorandum to President Ramnath Kovind seeking his intervention in the matter, Congress agreed to be a signatory to it. But overall the party has refrained from making NRC pivotal to its electioneering, which is broadly underlined by Rahul Gandhi’s continuing temple marathon. Gandhi, who had at the time of the Gujarat election in December 2017 identified himself as a Shiva devotee, set out on a Kailash Mansarovar yatra on Friday. Sources said that during his campaign in poll-bound Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, his temple-run would continue.
On the EVM issue, which has remained in public discourse with the Opposition’s on and off allegations of poll rigging, the Congress is not as vocal as the Shiv Sena or the Samajwadi Party who have clearly expressed their wish to return to the ballot paper. A source in SP from Varanasi told The Sunday Guardian that the there was a feeling that the Congress wanted to fire its shots from the Opposition’s shoulders without entangling itself much in the controversy.
In January, when SP chief Akhilesh Yadav had convened a meeting of the Opposition parties to build consensus on the demand for ballot paper voting, Congress had preferred to abstain. Since then, Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray had in May called out the Opposition parties to boycott future polls if the controversy surrounding the EVMs was not resolved.
The Congress joined the Opposition chorus on 27 August in an all-party meet with the Election Commission. But the disagreements in the Opposition ranks tumbled out soon. While the Trinamool Congress batted for returning to ballot paper, the Left and the Congress seemed to be keen on the introduction of VVPATs to cross-check the EVM outcome.
A source quoted above said that the lack of clarity on EVM, Rafale and NRC was coming in the way of future rallies and press meets that the Opposition must undertake jointly to send out the right feelers to the electorate and gain credibility as a united front. “People are already asking who the face against PM Modi is. We are going to add to their bafflement if we adopt a contradictory line of communication on important issues,” he pointed out.