The two-day conclave of anti-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) parties under the I.N.D.I Alliance in Mumbai was widely expected to unveil a logo of the alliance.
The meeting was also supposed to have taken a decision on a few key issues like a common minimum campaign agenda and name a convenor of the alliance.
But a decision on none of these was possible, primarily because of strident opposition by Trinamool Congress chairperson Mamata Banerjee.
On Alliance Convenor
Banerjee had, even before the informal deliberations between leaders of 28 parties started at Mumbai Grand Hyatt Hotel Thursday (31 August) late afternoon, made it clear that she has reservations on the Alliance having one convenor.
She had conveyed her position on this issue to senior Congress leaders as well as Sharad Pawar, Uddhav Thackeray and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin, during phone conversations with them over the past couple of weeks.
Banerjee had got to know that leaders of prominent parties like the Congress, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Samajwadi Party (SP), National Conference, Janata Dal (United)-JD(U), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), DMK, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) and the Left parties had informally agreed on Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s name as the convenor of the I.N.D.I Alliance.
These leaders had decided to propose Kumar’s name at the formal meeting of the Alliance in Mumbai on Friday (1 September).
Mamata Banerjee, it is learnt, feared that as Alliance convenor, Nitish Kumar would get more importance than her and would become a stronger claimant to the Prime Minister’s post, in case the NDA fails to garner a majority.
Apprehensive of the prominence that her Bihar counterpart would get as convenor of the anti-BJP alliance, Mamata Banerjee sabotaged the move.
She got in touch with Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who also harbours ambitions of becoming the Prime Minister, and convinced him that the alliance does not need one convenor only.
Nitish Kumar learnt of Banerjee’s opposition to the move to make him convenor of the alliance. In order to avoid a dispute and for the sake of smooth sailing of the alliance, he announced at the very start of the formal meeting Friday (1 September) morning that he is not interested in any position.
A Common Logo
The Congress, especially Rahul Gandhi, and some other prominent parties, were heavily invested in coming up with an attractive logo for the alliance.
It is learnt that some of them even had a few ideas in mind that they were keen to share with leaders of other parties at the Mumbai meet.
But here, too, Mamata Banerjee played spoilsport.
Banerjee had, in this case also, got to know of this move to have a common logo for the alliance. She learnt that Rahul Gandhi had discussed this with leaders of some other parties he is personally friendly with.
But he (Rahul Gandhi) had not discussed the idea with any Trinamool leader and that reportedly miffed Banerjee. Also, she knew that if a common logo is adopted, the creator(s) of the logo would take credit for it.
Banerjee, who is well known for her penchant to hog the limelight, found it unacceptable. And so she roped in a few other parties to oppose the idea of a logo.
The excuse that she, and the three or four other parties she managed to get to her side, advanced for opposing the logo was that all parties will fight the parliamentary elections next year under their own party symbols. Having a logo for the I.N.D.I Alliance, they argued, would confuse the voters.
But those who favoured the idea of a logo, which would identify the alliance and give it a distinct identity, haven’t given up.
Former Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray said at the end of the meet that a decision on the logo would be taken by the 14-member coordination committee of the alliance.
On Adani And Other Contentious Issues
Mamata Banerjee conveyed to Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge that no leader of the alliance should speak on major issues without first discussing the same with alliance partners.
She cited the case of Rahul Gandhi speaking out against the Adani group. Banerjee told Kharge and some other Congress leaders she interacted with informally Thursday (31 August), that Adani is a leading business figure who has investments in many states.
She echoed, perhaps unwittingly, the BJP’s line that the Adani group has investments in many Congress-ruled states and it does not behove the Congress leadership to criticise Adani.
Mamata Banerjee was, of course, driven by her concern about the in Bengal being developed by the Adani group. This is a showpiece investment in Bengal and Banerjee has been touting it majorly while pitching Bengal as an attractive investment destination.
Banerjee said that all major issues should be brought to the table and discussed among all partners of the alliance and a common stand adopted. Leaders of the alliance should not speak in different voices on major issues, she said.
Banerjee is also learnt to have opposed the Congress’ strident stand on the India-China border issue, especially Rahul Gandhi’s frequent remarks that China has taken over India’s land.
Banerjee told Congress leaders that Rahul Gandhi’s aggressive stance on this issue is being leveraged by the BJP to paint the Congress as a pro-China party which speaks in Beijing’s voice. And such a perception, if it gains ground, can harm other partners of the alliance as well.
A Common Minimum Campaign Agenda
The Trinamool chairperson also stood out for her opposition to inclusion of contentious topics like a caste survey in a proposed common minimum poll campaign agenda.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar said the demand for a nationwide caste survey should find prominence in such an agenda. He was backed by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin, RJD chief Lalu Yadav and SP chief Akhilesh Yadav.
But Mamata Banerjee voiced her strong objection to it. As soon as Nitish Kumar put forth this demand at Friday’s meeting, Mamata Banerjee intervened and said she is opposed to linking the census with religion.
Banerjee’s stand on this is understandable because she has faced criticism from the BJP for including a large number of Muslim groups in the list of OBC beneficiaries in Bengal.
A Congress leader present at Friday’s meeting told Swarajya that Banerjee’s vehemence in opposing Nitish Kumar on this issue left everyone surprised and even annoyed.
Her objection, felt many, was incomprehensible and baseless. But her stridence and the apparent anger she displayed made everyone else uncomfortable.
They felt that there was no point in discussing the issue and trying to make her see reason because Banerjee would have got angrier and perhaps left the meeting in a huff.
Mamata Banerjee later said that all these issues should be discussed by the newly-formed coordination committee, leaving many to wonder why she is opposed to discussing these issues with others at the Mumbai meet itself.
Discontent Over Seat-Sharing Talks
Mamata Banerjee expressed her impatience with the slow pace of talks on seat-sharing.
She said that the BJP may declare that the Lok Sabha polls will be held by the end of this year and that would leave little time for the I.N.D.I Alliance partners to campaign effectively if decisions on sharing seats are not taken by the end of September.
Mamata Banerjee was supported by Arvind Kejriwal. Both are keen on contesting from other states where the Congress and other parties are strong and their own parties have no base.
They want the seat-sharing talks to start and conclude immediately because they will know exactly where they stand on the vital issue of contesting from states where they want to gain a foothold but have limited or no presence right now.
Mamata Banerjee, for instance, wants to know for sure if the Congress wants to align with her in Bengal or wants to sustain its alliance with the Left and take on the BJP as well as the Trinamool in the state.
The Trinamool chief also wants the Congress and other parties to come clean on whether they will accommodate her party in other states like Assam, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand where she wants to field some candidates.
But the Congress and other parties contend that the low-hanging fruits — states where the fight is mainly between the Congress and the BJP — should be tackled first since it will be easier to arrive at a decision regarding those states.
The more contentious states like Bengal and Punjab where multiple partners of the I.N.D.I alliance will stake their claims can be tackled once the alliance gets stronger.
But Mamata Banerjee expressed her disapproval over this approach and said she would start campaigning in all the 42 Lok Sabha seats in Bengal from October, even if seat-sharing talks on Bengal don’t conclude by then.
After stating this, Banerjee stayed silent but sported a scowl and appeared distinctly unhappy. She only conferred frequently with her nephew Abhishek Banerjee and her party’s Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien.
As soon as Friday (1 September)’s meeting got over, Mamata Banerjee reportedly greeted a few leaders quite perfunctorily and went to her room.
She left the hotel soon after that without addressing the joint press conference held at the end of the day. She drove straight to the airport to catch a commercial flight back to Kolkata.
Mamata Banerjee’s conduct at the conclave, and the fact that she failed to attend the joint press meet after the meeting, left many with a bitter taste in their mouths.
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