True to his reputation, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has blundered once again. His poor political judgement was on display on Friday when he decided to lead a party delegation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the last day of the Winter Session of Parliament. This created fissures among Opposition parties that had united during the entire session to protest against the Union government’s decision to invalidate Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes.
The Congress delegation’s meeting with Modi on the plight of farmers was scheduled barely a few hours before 16 Opposition parties were to call on President Pranab Mukherjee to highlight the hardships being faced by the common man in accessing cash because of the Centre’s move last month to withdraw 86% of the cash in circulation. The meeting with the president was billed as a grand finale to the month-long session that had witnessed a rare show of unity among the disparate Opposition groups.
But this unity lay in tatters on the last day of the session when a number of Opposition parties pulled out of the meeting with the president in protest against the Congress party’s decision to lead a separate delegation to the prime minister without consulting with them. Among the parties that boycotted the meeting with the President included the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Nationalist Congress Party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India.
The issue had cropped up at the daily morning meeting of Opposition parties when several leaders, including Derek O’Brien of the Trinamool Congress, questioned the Congress about its proposed meeting with the prime minister and suggested that it should be put off for another day.
Congress members upset
If Gandhi’s decision to go ahead with the plan to meet Modi angered the other Opposition parties, it also upset his own party members. They questioned the timing of the meeting in private conversations, and even went as far as to describe it as a “self-goal”.
Senior Congress leaders pointed to the united fight put up by the Opposition parties against the Modi government on the issue of demonetisation for a full month, which had even brought together arch-political rivals like the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Trinamool Congress and the Left parties and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. They had together derailed parliamentary proceedings, stood together in protest on the completion of one month of the move on demonetisation, and addressed a joint press conference.
But this display of unity was fractured because of Gandhi’s ill-thought out move to call on Modi at a time the united Opposition was locked in confrontation with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-National Democratic Alliance.
“Where was the need to meet the prime minister today...they could have met him next week,” remarked a senior Congress office bearer. “You have only ended up driving wedge in the Opposition camp.”
Besides pointing to the division in the Opposition camp, Congress members said that Gandhi had also spoilt his own case with this decision.
The Congress vice-president had launched a direct attack against Modi on Wednesday, publicly declaring that he had information of personal corruption against the prime minister and that the ruling party was not allowing him to speak in the Lok Sabha.
Following his statement, it was Bharatiya Janata Party MPs who derailed proceedings in Parliament during the last few days, instead of the Opposition.
Just when Gandhi could legitimately claim that he was being blocked by the treasury benches, the Congress ruined the optics by calling on Modi and allowing the Lok Sabha to function for the passage of the Disabilities Rights Bill.
“What kind of a message are you sending out?” asked a senior Congress MP. “You are photographed in a cordial meeting with the prime minister at a time when you are levelling serious corruption charges against him and then you allow the Lok Sabha to function on the last day but do not use the opportunity to place your information on record.”
Not only would Gandhi have ended the session on a sensational note if he had made the promised disclosures in the Lok Sabha on Friday, he would have been able to speak quite freely because an MP enjoys immunity when he speaks in Parliament. The Congress vice-president will now be required to exercise caution if and when he discloses this information from a public platform.
With their own party members questioning the day’s developments, red-faced Congress leaders were quick to blame each other for the fiasco. While some pointed fingers at Lok Sabha MP Jyotiraditya Scindia, who, they said, had sought an appointment with the prime minister to highlight the problems of farmers, others maintained it was senior leader Ghulam Nabi Azad who had fixed the meeting with an eye on next year’s Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh. But Congress members were not convinced with these explanations.
“Rahul Gandhi is the leader and he has to take the final call in such matters,” said a senior Congress office bearer.