A high-profile meeting of opposition parties lost much of its sheen on Monday as six major rivals of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance government were not present during a discussion on issues such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the state of the economy.
Later, 20 parties, led by the Congress, demanded the withdrawal of the CAA, and launched an attack against the central government over slowdown in the economy. They also called on chief ministers who have announced that they will not implement a proposed all-India NRC to suspend the updating process of the National Population Register (NPR).
“The CAA, NPR and NRC is a package that is unconstitutional, which specifically targets the poor, the downtrodden, the SC/STs [Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes] and the linguistic & religious minorities,” the parties said in a resolution after the meeting in the Parliament complex. Some leaders suggested that political parties should join the ongoing protests against CAA and NRC in Delhi and elsewhere, but at least four senior leaders rejected the idea saying these were spontaneous protests that should not be given a political colour, according to people familiar with the matter.
But six key regional forces — the Trinamool Congress, the Shiv Sena, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) — were not present at the meeting.
Last week, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee announced that she would boycott the meeting to protest the violence during a 24-hour nationwide strike called by central trade unions, pointing fingers at Left and Congress supporters.
DMK’s TR Balu, a former Union minister, did not turn up for the meeting on Monday, and party officials conveyed to the Congress managers that this was over differences between the Tamil Nadu allies over local body elections in the state.
Hours before the meeting, BSP leader Mayawati took to Twitter and spoke against Rajasthan’s ruling Congress for poaching six of her legislators earlier this month. “In this situation, if the BSP joins the meeting called by the Congress, it will hurt the morale of the party supporters in Rajasthan. So, we will not join this meeting,” she said, while clarifying that her party was against CAA and NRC.
SP chief Akhilesh Yadav did not confirm his party’s participation and the Shiv Sena initially maintained that it were informed about the meeting at the last stage, according to two senior Congress leaders who did not want to be named. The two Congress leaders, however, contended that the Sena, a long-time BJP ally that recently joined hands with the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) to form a government in Maharashtra, was informed much in advance.
Senior AAP leader Sanjay Singh said the party was “not invited”. “The AAP had no information about any such meeting. We were not invited,” he said.
Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, the leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, said the absence of some parties did not cast a shadow over Monday’s meeting. “All the parties have a common stand on the issue of NRC, CAA. Even if they have not attended the meeting, we remain united on the issue and the purpose,” he said.
Political analyst Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay said the absence of the key parties meant some of them refused to give the Congress the moral leadership of the Opposition bloc.
“The meeting was aimed to regain the relevance in the opposition space. Even as we see the emergence of the ideological contestation against the BJP, the political leadership is missing in action. But for parties such as the AAP or the BSP, who are in position of conflict with Congress, why should they provide moral leadership to the Congress? Issue is with the people, not with parties,” Mukhopadhyay said.
The deliberations, which went on over more than three hours, focused on the citizenship debate, and the prevailing economic and jobs situation.
Union minister and BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad took a jibe at the Opposition’s resolution against CAA, commenting that it must have made Pakistan happy. He said the Opposition ended up “unnecessarily” attacking the Modi government in the process. “Opposition unity stands exposed as major parties like SP, BSP, TMC and AAP kept away. The resolution is neither in national interest nor in the interest of security. It is also not in the interest of those minorities who fled neighbouring countries to escape persecution,” Prasad said.
In her opening statement, Congress president Sonia Gandhi said, at the meeting: “The government has let loose a reign of oppression, spreading hatred and trying to divide our people along sectarian lines. There is unprecedented turmoil today. The Constitution is being undermined and the instruments of governance are being misused. Students and the young have in particular been targeted. In several parts of the country, especially in Uttar Pradesh, large sections of the population are being harassed and attacked.”
“The real issue facing India today is the collapse of economic activity and slowing growth and development affecting all sections of society, especially the poor and disadvantaged. The Prime Minister and Home Minister have no answers and want to divert the nation’s attention from this grim reality by raising one divisive and polarizing issue after another. It is for us to work together and thwart the designs of this government,” she added.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi targeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi over unemployment and economy, and said: “People are angry and also scared of their future. The government has failed in its work, and the students in universities and farmers are agitated.”
In the resolution drafted by Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, the parties accused the Centre of creating an “economic disaster”, and sharpening “communal polarisation and attacking democratic rights”, allegations that Prasad rejected as a “bundle of lies”.
At least 10 chief ministers, including BJP ally Nitish Kumar in Bihar, have rejected an all-India NRC, and the state assembly in Left-ruled Kerala has passed a resolution against CAA.