Trinamool Congress supremo and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee is set to host a mega Opposition show of strength in Kolkata on Saturday. For about a year, Mamata has toured the country in an effort to shore up a strong and united Opposition front to fight the Lok Sabha elections against the BJP.
In the run up to a huge gathering of anti-BJP parties, several cues and conjectures ensured all eyes remained on the 19 January rally as the political circles kept buzzing.
The Congress issue
A major talking point of the rally is the potential absence of the top leadership of BJP's biggest challenger at the national level. Congress president Rahul Gandhi and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi are likely to skip the event, and will instead send senior Congress leaders, the likes of Mallikarjun Kharge and Abhishek Manu Singhvi, for the party's representation.
Speculations have been rife over the absence of the Congress 'biggies'. However, reports have said that it was the West Bengal unit of the Congress that didn't want Rahul and Sonia to attend the event. Also, the state leadership is believed to have told the party chief that Congress workers were ready to contest the upcoming Lok Sabha elections alone.
The West Bengal Congress leaders were reportedly also annoyed over the fact that the TMC supremo did not invite any state leader for the rally. Rahul in the past had assured the West Bengal unit that any decision in regard with forging an alliance with the TMC will be taken after considering state leadership's view. Mamata hasn't addressed any of these matters yet.
Importance given to regional leaders
Throughout her outreach exercise, Mamata ensured that prominence was given to the regional parties. Leaders of non-BJP parties from "Kashmir to Kanyakumari" would be present at the rally, Mamata told reporters.
Though the West Bengal chief minister hasn't verbally pushed for an anti-Congress federal front, she has asserted that the regional parties will be the deciding factor in the Lok Sabha elections. The maximum she did to keep the Congress involved was when she went to Delhi to invite Rahul and Sonia.
Among the regional bigwigs expected to address the rally are former prime minister HD Deve Gowda, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and his Karnataka counterpart HD Kumaraswamy, Telugu Desam Party chief Chandrababu Naidu, Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar and Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav.
Patidar leader Hardik Patel, Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani and Babulal Marandi of the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha will also be present. DMK president MK Stalin, Rashtriya Lok Dal chief Ajit Singh and Lalu Prasad's son Tejashwi Yadav would also be among the political leaders at the rally.
Though Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo Mayawati has decided to stay away, she has deputed senior leader Satish Chandra Mishra. Samajwadi Part and BSP joined hands in Uttar Pradesh only last week to take on the BJP during the Lok Sabha election. Despite Mayawati move, Mamata said that the presence of Satish Mishra "is a big thing for us".
National Conference chief Farooq Abdullah and his son Omar Abdullah have also confirmed their participation. Though the Left parties were invited too, they haven't confirmed their presence at the rally.
Interestingly, BJP leader Shatrughan Sinha will also attend the rally. Over the years, Sinha has been attacking Prime Minister Narendra Modi over a number of issues. However, he will attend the rally as a representative of "Rashtra Manch", a political action group launched by former BJP leader Yashwant Sinha.
Differences over PM candidate
An obvious question that ails the parties batting for a united Opposition front is who will be their prime ministerial face.
In December, 2018, MK Stalin had proposed Rahul's name as the prime ministerial candidate of the united Opposition. However, Mamata refused to agree with the suggestion and said that whatever the "political parties (referring to united Opposition) decide, will be the answer".
The TMC supremo argued that the timing wasn't right to pick a candidate for the prime minister's post. "Let the election come. We all are strongly together and working together. Whatever all the political parties will decide, will be the answer. It is a good step as all parties and their leaders are coming together," she had said.
Mamata's constant criticism of the NDA government has, however, indicated that she, in fact, wants to be seen as the secular alternative to Modi. The only support for this ambition of hers came from the West Bengal BJP unit, when state president Dilip Ghosh said, "If there is any chance of a Bengali prime minister, she (Mamata) has a possibility." Even he later backtracked, saying that he was speaking about a "distant future", reported The Indian Express.
The Trinamool Congress is expecting a turnout of 40 lakh at the 19 January rally. Hindustan Times quoted Bengal food minister Jyoti Priya Mallick as claiming that the turnout will be bigger than the one in 1977 on the same Brigade Parade Ground that was attended by tall figures like Jyoti Basu and Jayaprakash Narayan.
Chandrababu Naidu, who has also led the efforts to forge a grand alliance, is hoping that Opposition parties will decide their "future course of action" on Saturday.
In view of the rally, the West Bengal government will deploy as many as 10,000 police personnel across the city to ensure foolproof security. Drones will be flown over the venue to keep tabs on the proceedings.
Mamata has expressed her wish to be a "listener" at the event. "I don't want to say anything, let them (Opposition leaders) say. I want to hear them. Everything will be based on consensus," she told reporters on Thursday. With several issues ailing the Opposition, what the Saturday gathering will amount to remains to be seen.
With inputs from agencies
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Updated Date: Jan 18, 2019 13:44:21 IST