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'Hum Bharatiya INDIA ke saath'

By JYOTI PUNWANI
Last updated on: August 31, 2023 17:15 IST
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The contrast between the two meetings couldn't have been more stark, yet, both were organically linked, the latter a show of support for the former.
Jyoti Punwani reports.

IMAGE: Left to Right: Maharashtra Congress President Nana Patole, Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) President Uddhav Thackeray, Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, Shiv Sena (UBT) leader Aaditya Thackery, former Maharashtra chief minister and Congress leader Ashok Chavan, NCP leader Jayant Patil at a press briefing ahead of the meeting of the INDIA alliance in Mumbai, August 30, 2023. All Photographs: Jyoti Punwani

There was INDIA, the 26-party Opposition alliance meeting at the glittering Grand Hyatt hotel, and then there was Bharat, represented by the meeting of activist groups in a nondescript hall only a 10 minute walk away.

Flashbulbs popped as VVIPs drove up to the Hyatt and were welcomed with the traditional Maharashtrian lezim and the bugle-like tootari. At the other venue, neither fancy vehicles nor cameras were visible; the only speaker who had mikes thrust in front of him there was Rakesh Tikait.

The contrast between the two meetings couldn't have been more stark, yet, both were organically linked, the latter a show of support for the former.

 

At least two of the leading members of the INDIA alliance, Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar and the Congress's Nana Patole, knew about this other meeting, that had the slogan 'Hum Bharatiya INDIA ke saath'. But no prominent leader cared to turn up there except the CPI's D Raja.

Janata Dal-United Rajya Sabha MP Anil Hedge and general secretary of the CPI(ML) Dipankar Bhattacharya were present on stage, but both are known more for their activism. Hegde, a long time socialist, is an environmentalist who has courted arrest hundreds of times. Though Bhattacharya's party won 12 seats in the 2020 assembly elections in Bihar, it remains, as he put it, "an outsider" to the corridors of power.

"Our politics is done outside Parliament; but from the outside, we keep a watch on what goes on inside," said Medha Patkar, whose electrifying speech woke up a dull audience.

IMAGE: Medha Patkar, social activist, speaks at the Bharat event.

Medha Patkar's inclusion in the long list of INDIA supporters has reportedly annoyed some Opposition parties, and one can see why.

As she proceeded to ask the INDIA alliance whether it would undo the BJP's policies, from the recent amendments to the Forest Conservation Act, to the privatisation and commercialisation of PSUs; from the weakening of the federal structure to the repeal of labour laws; and finally whether it would change the entire pattern of destructive "development", the audience applauded and raised slogans.

"Will the INDIA alliance be committed to bridge the vast difference between India and Bharat?" she asked.

"If they are willing to do all this, we are willing to support them to the fullest extent," said the leader of the mass-based Narmada Bachao Andolan, which will complete 38 years next month.

***

IMAGE: The leaders of the INDIA bloc at the event.

Worlds away from these concerns, the leaders of the INDIA alliance spoke about the power they represented: 11 CMs were with the alliance, said former Maharashtra CM and Congress CWC member Ashok Chavan, and collectively, in 2019, Opposition parties had garnered 23.4 crore (234 million) votes compared to the BJP's 22.9 crore (229 million).

63 parties, said Sharad Pawar, the senior-most leader to address the media, had come together to provide an alternative to bring about parivartan, based on a common minimum programme.

The leaders linked the drop in price of cooking gas cylinders announced on Tuesday, to Narendra Modi's "fear of the growing strength" of the Opposition alliance.

"By the time the 2024 elections come, I wouldn't be surprised if gas cylinders are offered free, because this government runs on gas," quipped star speaker Uddhav Thackeray.

More than one speaker went so far as to say that as the INDIA alliance grew stronger, China would start receding from Indian territory.

In his opening remarks, Chavan pointed out the historical significance of Maharashtra, the land of Shivaji Maharaj, sants and Shahu-Phule-Ambedkar thought, and of Mumbai: A lead player in the Independence movement and a pioneer in industrialisation. Once again, Maharashtra and Mumbai were set to play a role in building a united opposition to the current government, he said.

"Today is Raksha Bandhan," he said, adding that just as brothers were supposed to protect sisters, so also the India alliance had to protect the country.

Thackeray took this further, saying for an ideal government, everyday was Raksha Bandhan; it was the duty of the government to ensure the safety of women. Unfortunately, under the BJP, this wasn't happening.

IMAGE: VVIPs being welcomed at the Hyatt with traditional Maharashtrian lezim and the bugle-like tootari.

The Shiv Sena (UBT) chief repeated what he had said in Hingoli on Sunday. "Modi has asked his parry members to get rakhis tied by Muslim sisters. Why doesn't he get a rakhi tied by Bilkis Bano or the two women who were paraded naked in Manipur, or the women wrestlers who were on strike against sexual harassment in Delhi?"

Mundane issues like inflation and unemployment were mentioned, but most of the questions were political: About missing potential alliance partners Mayawati and Prakash Ambedkar; BMC (BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation) elections; and the lack of a PM face. The last prompted Thackeray to retort: "We have a lot of choices for PM; does the BJP have a choice?"

Nobody could say with whom Mayawati would ally, said Pawar, adding that in the past, she has had a dialogue with the BJP. As for Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi chief Prakash Ambedkar, Thackeray replied that he had announced his party's alliance with the former in January; he would ask him if he wanted to be part of the larger alliance.

Significantly, soon after the Sena announced its alliance with Ambedkar, the latter alleged that Sharad Pawar was with the BJP, drawing sharp responses form the NCP. The Congress too, stated that Ambedkar's alliance was only with the Sena, not with the MVA.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Ambedkar, who was expected to ally with the Congress in Maharashtra, eventually teamed up with Asaduddin Owaisi's AIMIM and caused the loss of at least 8 Congress seats including that of Ashok Chavan from his fiefdom Nanded.

"Yes I know he contributed to my defeat," smiled Chavan when reminded about Ambedkar's role. "But he's a good friend of mine."

IMAGE: One of the activists speaking at the Bharat event.

Expressing scepticism about the BMC polls being held any time soon, Thackeray asked: "You think they have the guts?"

Asked about Modi's constant jibes against the Opposition regarding dynastic parties and corruption, Pawar recalled the PM's Bhopal speech and said: "He described the NCP as a corrupt party, specifically mentioning the irrigation scam. I want to tell him: 'You are in power, why don't you inquire into the irrigation scam?'"

Ajit Pawar, who parted ways with his uncle Sharad Pawar and allied with the BJP in July, was at the centre of the irrigation scam which allegedly took place when he was irrigation minister in 2008 under the Congress-NCP government.

One question that left the INDIA leaders uneasy was the absence of a Muslim party in the alliance, specifically the AIMIM. (The Indian Union Muslim League is a part of it.) Finally, it was left to Pawar to answer. "We have talked with them. They are ready to join us, but this decision cannot be taken only by me. There's the Sena and the Congress; there has to be a consensus."

It may be recalled that in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress broke off talks with Prakash Ambedkar when he teamed up with the AIMIM.

***

IMAGE: Rakesh Tikait speaks at the Bharat event.

Addressing the meeting of INDIA-supporting activists, Kisan Andolan leader Rakesh Tikait, the most high profile of the farm leaders who forced the Centre to withdraw its three farmer laws after a year-long protest on the outskirts of Delhi, had some advice for the INDIA alliance leaders at the Grand Hyatt: "If you are in politics, either wield power or come onto the streets to oppose those in power."

Presiding over that meet was 99-year-old freedom fighter Dr G G Parikh, jailed during the 1942 Quit India movement.

Will the INDIA alliance leaders pay heed to this advice?

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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JYOTI PUNWANI / Rediff.com
 
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