Rahul Gandhi is demonstrating the sort of vigour that critics often accuse him of lacking. After a short bicycle ride to parliament this morning – in protest against fuel prices on fire – the 51-year-old hosted a breakfast gathering for the leaders of 14 Opposition parties to ensure they work together in both Houses to corner the government over various controversies including the contentious new farm laws and the Pegasus phone-hacking scandal.
In what must be big relief for the Congress, 14 leaders who were invited showed up. Including Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool, which had skipped the last “unity” meeting called by Rahul Gandhi last week. Also present were representatives of Sharad Pawar’s party and the Shiv Sena, with whom the Congress runs the government in Maharashtra. Recent weeks have seen Congress leaders in the state making snide remarks about the Sena, a strategy apparently predicated on Gandhi’s own underlying discomfort with the Sena and its ideology. So, the fact that the Maharashtra alliance was represented in its entirety should help counter the pesky and constant backstairs chatter about the government being at least a little wobbly.
The menu apparently met required standards – it was reviewed as “sumptuous” by Congressman Shashi Tharoor on Twitter. Apparently, not appetizing enough to bring Mayawati’s BSP and the Aam Aadmi Party to the table. Both stood up the Congress. Sotto voce, the leaders present hinted at their “B-team” status with the BJP. Mayawati has publicly said she will not ally with any party for the big fight of the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections due in six months. Priyanka Gandhi, who handles UP for the Congress, has taken numerous jibes at Mayawati about playing for the BJP.
The Trinmool’s attendance at this meeting, compared to its absence at the last one, comes after Mamata Banerjee’s recent meeting with Sonia Gandhi in Delhi. On her trip, Mamata announced her “khela hobe” call-to-action; the slogan was wildly successful in Bengal where she lavishly defeated the BJP with a record result in May.
For the Congress, the “Brekkie and Bike Meet” was a show of strength, as also for Rahul Gandhi, who is showing more signs of accepting that is he is in fact calling the shots while his mother, Sonia, is officially the (interim) President. Rahul Gandhi’s top advisors were at the meeting: Deepender Hooda, Adhirajan Chowdhury, K C Venugopal and Jairam Ramesh. Traditionally, the outreach to key Opposition leaders was led by Ahmed Patel, Sonia Gandh’s trusted aide. After he died in November last year, Kamal Nath appears to have appropriated the “bridge” role and has held meetings with key Opposition leaders to work out a “unity strategy”. He met with Mamata Banerjee in Delhi along with Anand Sharma who had worked with her in the Youth Congress. Kamal Nath also had a meeting with Sharad Pawar on June 22 in Delhi to work on the common Opposition agenda.
Prashant Kishor, formerly political strategist who is now considering joining the Congress for a more immersive experience, has been central to the top Opposition leaders’ efforts to show a united front against the BJP. When Banerjee was in Delhi, “PK”,who was enrolled by her for the Bengal campaign, was a quiet, constant behind-the-scenes presence, plotting her meetings and talking points at press meets and elsewhere. PK had earlier met Sharad Pawar in Mumbai on June 11. He has held several rounds of meetings with the Gandhi family, reportedly in preparation for a big role in the party.
The Pegasus scandal has given the Opposition a rallying point and a weakness to exploit in the Modi Government. This parliament session has been successfully infused with demands for the government to come clean on whether it bought the spyware and against whom it was used. The Modi Government’s dismissal of the snooping as a “non-issue” has lacked any traction and the explanations it has offered so far come across as an uncharacteristic waffling.
As the Opposition tries to gain from this, Rahul Gandhi seems to have shed his earlier reluctance to cultivating relationships with senior Opposition figures. Several leaders including Banerjee and Pawar used to complain of frigid relations with him and preferred dealing with Sonia Gandhi. Now, Rahul Gandhi seems to be going the extra mile in making them comfortable within a working relationship. Even the outreach to the Shiv Sena is part of the newer, friendlier “RG”. He’ll have to work hard to make it stick.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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