By deciding to boycott a meeting of about a dozen opposition parties in New Delhi, India on January 13—when they will try to firm up a strategy to take forward the movement against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed NRC—West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has set the proverbial cat among the pigeons. And the knives are finally out in the open in the opposition camp.
The meeting in Delhi has been called by Congress President Sonia Gandhi to frame a joint action plan against the CAA/NRC and the National Population Register (NPR). Leaders of opposition parties like Samajwadi Party, Left parties, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Rashtriya Janata Dal and Nationalist Congress Party are likely to attend the meeting, which is also likely to discuss the political response to keep up the heat of street protests on the government and meet the Bharatiya Janata Party-led governments’ sustained campaign in favour of the CAA/NRC/NPR and a push to update the NPR. One has to wait and see if Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, which is in the midst of a campaign for the forthcoming assembly poll in the Indian capital, will attend the January 13 meeting. The BSP and the AAP have of late been skipping the opposition gatherings.
Mamata’s decision to stay away from the meeting has come as a setback to efforts to unite the opposition parties against the CAA and violence on university campuses. The decision brings to the fore the simmering one-upmanship among the Left and the Trinamool Congress over the CAA-NPR issues. Mamata has always squirmed at the prospect of sharing the dais with the Left parties who, along with the Congress, are her known detractors in West Bengal politics. Mamata has, however, reiterated her vow to carry on the battle against the CAA/NRC/NPR independent of any other opposition party. This reinforces how Mamata’s political compulsions in West Bengal are not in sync with the imperatives of a national-level united face against the Modi government on the issue. The same holds true for all other key regional parties. This precisely is the most serious challenge for a pan-India anti-BJP unity whose limitations were all too visible in the run-up to last year’s Lok Sabha polls that saw the Modi-led party returning to power with even a bigger mandate than in 2014.
During the last one month of agitation against the CAA/NPR/NRC, both Mamata and Kerala’s Marxist Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan were engaged in a race for putting themselves in key positions in the anti-BJP agitation. It was Mamata who first shot off a letter to nine non-BJP chief ministers of states underlining the need for a pan-India opposition unity against the amended citizenship law. Later, a similar letter was sent by Vijayan. Again, it was Mamata who was first off the blocks to issue a formal order halting the state-level work related to NPR. Then Vijayan followed suit. Vijayan, with the help of the opposition Congress, also got a resolution passed in the Kerala assembly opposing the CAA.
If there were similarities, there was also one important divergence. Vijayan and senior Congress leaders shared the dais at two separate public rallies against the CAA/NRC in Kerala despite their state-level adversarial positions; Mamata’s party has not so far gone for any joint programme with the Congress and the Left in West Bengal on the issue.
Secondly, the day Mamata announced her decision to boycott the January 13 meeting, she opposed the Left-Congress suggestion to pass a similar resolution against CAA/NRC at a one-day special session of West Bengal Assembly, citing that the House had passed a resolution against NRC in September. The Left-Congress argument was that a fresh resolution was needed since the CAA was passed by parliament in December. Legally speaking, these assembly resolutions cannot obstruct the implementation of a law passed by parliament and at best serve to highlight a political message.
That Mamata sought to make herself the central figure in the anti-CAA/NRC campaign was also evident from the fact that she was the only opposition chief minister to lead the highest number of street marches (10), and she announced monetary compensation for the families of those killed in police firing on anti-CAA protesters in Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh. Mamata also had sent her party delegations to Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh to sympathise with the families of those killed.
In staying away from the opposition parties’ January 13 meeting in New Delhi, Mamata sought to take the moral high ground of non-violence, as she accused the Left and the Congress supporters of unleashing violence in West Bengal during the 24-hour strike called by India’s major trade unions to protest the Modi government’s economic policies.
CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury hit back at Mamata’s decision to skip the January 13 meeting. His push-back had two main components: 1) criticism of the Mamata government for not agreeing to a fresh anti-CAA/NRC resolution in the assembly on January 9, and 2) keeping the doors open for Trinamool Congress to join the opposition parties’ unity efforts at a later time, stating that local differences and rivalries at the state level should not come in the way of defending India’s secular democracy. However, Mohammed Salim, Yechury’s party colleague from West Bengal, was blunt in his attack on Mamata, alleging, along with the state Congress leaders, that she was trying to please the top BJP leadership.
The unity in the opposition camp on the CAA-NRC issue has always appeared to be skin-deep. For instance, when leaders of a number of opposition parties, including Mamata, gathered at the December swearing-in ceremony of Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren at the helm of an anti-BJP coalition, the list of absentees was longer than that of those present. The exercise failed to attract any party that has reservations about NRC, outside the BJP-NDA and the non-Congress-UPA formations.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star. He writes from New Delhi, India.