Buoyed by her party’s stunning victory in the recent Lok Sabha and Assembly by-polls in Rajasthan and its impressive electoral revival in Gujarat, former Congress president Sonia Gandhi expressed hope on Thursday (February 8) that the Grand Old Party’s fortunes at the hustings were now in revival.
Addressing a meeting of the Congress Parliamentary Party for the first time since her son, Rahul Gandhi, was elevated as the party’s national president – a post that she held for 19 long years – Sonia said: “We performed very creditably under tough circumstances in Gujarat and the recent by-election results in Rajasthan were huge. This shows that the winds of change are coming.”
Though no longer the Congress president, Sonia continues to be the chairperson of the Congress-led UPA coalition as well as that of the Congress Parliamentary Party. However, she made it amply clear to her party’s MPs that Rahul’s elevation as Congress president in no way meant the creation of two power centres within the party – one loyal to her and the other to her son. In fact, she categorically said Rahul “is now my boss too – let there be no doubt about that – and I know that all of you will work with him with the same dedication, loyalty and enthusiasm as you did with me.”
Speaking to the Congress MPs a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a blistering charge against the Grand Old Party while responding to the Motion of Thanks on President Ram Nath Kovind’s address to a joint sitting of both Houses of Parliament, Sonia strongly indicted the ruling NDA coalition for creating an “all-pervasive atmosphere of fear and intimidation”.
“It has been almost four years since this government came to power. This has been a period in which institutions that are at the foundation of our democracy have come under systematic assault—Parliament itself, the judiciary, media and civil society. Investigative agencies have been let loose against political opponents… Liberal, secular and democratic traditions are being wantonly damaged. The pluralistic nature of our society—which has been its strength for centuries—is being eroded,” Sonia said.
With the Modi government already under attack from several sections of the political brass as well as the electorate over finance minister Arun Jaitley’s recently presented Union Budget 2018, Sonia made it a point to underscore the challenges facing the Indian economy.
“Tall claims are being made of so-called economic achievements, but the reality is quite different. Agriculture continues to be in deep distress and the desperation of farmers is sadly evident in the number of suicides. The rural economy and small and medium enterprises are in shambles. Unemployment is staring at our youth. New jobs are not only not being created, but existing jobs themselves are being lost. Employment cannot happen without new investments and the fact is that there has been a marked decline in the rate of investment over the past four years,” the UPA chairperson said.
Sonia dubbed Jaitley’s budget as one that “is full of sleights of hand – of jumlas” and alleged that the disinvestment figures presented by the finance minister in his budget speech “have been exaggerated by including the sale of equity in one public sector company to another”.
Reiterating her party’s charge against the Modi government of perennially being in scheme-announcing mode while only re-naming and re-packaging programs initiated by the Congress-led UPA government, Sonia said: “This government announces what it calls new programmes and initiatives ever so often, unveiling them with the flourish of a magician. In reality, they are simply recycled schemes that were launched during the UPA government.”
In a scathing criticism of the Modi government’s propensity to re-package UPA-era schemes, Sonia said: “True, the new names are catchy and colourful, perhaps much more so than during our time, we must admit. But this seems to be a game of Maximum Publicity, Minimum Government, or put another way, Maximum Marketing, Minimum Delivery.”
In a direct attack at Prime Minister Narendra Modi who never tires of insisting that the Congress had not done anything for the country in the nearly seven decades that it ruled at the Centre, Sonia said: “If this government is to be believed, India had accomplished nothing before May 2014. The arrogance and dishonesty of this tells us that the Modi government is out of touch with reality, and lives by its own propaganda and lies. We need no further evidence of this than the Prime Minister’s speech in the Lok Sabha.”
With the Karnataka Assembly polls expected to be announced in a little over a month from now and the Grand Old Party largely touted to retain power in the southern state – the only big state still with the Congress – Sonia said: “very soon the election results in Karnataka will underline the resurgence of the Congress.”
Though admitting that the Lok Sabha poll results of May 2014 – in which the Congress was reduced to a historic low of just 44 seats in the 543-member Lower House of Parliament – were a “a severe setback”, Sonia added: “I am convinced that it was an aberration.”
With a palpable shift in public sentiment against the Modi government, Sonia underlined: “Increasingly, the people of our country, people belonging to all sections of our society—are getting disillusioned with the present regime” and said, “It is for us to channel this discontent into support.” She asked her party colleagues to “not only highlight the abject failures of the Modi government but more importantly, build a positive and credible narrative for ourselves on issues of public concern.”
At a time when an effort is afoot among all non-NDA parties to build a strong coalition to take on Modi in the next general elections scheduled for 2019, Sonia made it clear that “as Chairperson of the Congress Parliamentary Party, I will work with the Congress President and other colleagues in discussions with likeminded, political parties to ensure that in the next election, the BJP is defeated and India is restored to a democratic, inclusive, secular, tolerant and economically progressive path.” She also conceded that “the national elections which are due in slightly over a year – and might well be called earlier as they were in 2004.”
The UPA chairperson also criticised the Modi government’s handling of the situation in Jammu and Kashmir stating that “we see a deeply troubled country and deeply troubled people. Jammu and Kashmir continues to bleed.”
Although asserting that “we must combat cross-border terrorism forcefully —on that there can be no compromise”, Sonia added: “we must also ask, where is the healing touch, where is the developmental thrust, where is the political engagement that was so much in evidence when Dr Manmohan Singh was Prime Minister?”
On the perception that minorities and oppressed sections of the society had come under severe attack over the past four years of the BJP’s electoral upswing, Sonia said: “The minorities feel unsafe and are being subjected to barbarous attacks. Dalits have come under renewed and widespread atrocities, as have women.”
The former Congress president cautioned against the possibility of “violence, specially against minorities and dalits” being “orchestrated to polarize our society for narrow political gains” and said “We saw this in both UP and Gujarat. We will no doubt see it again in Karnataka.” She added: “Such polarization is criminal in a democracy, yet those in power look the other way.”