The Trinamool Congress on Tuesday indicated that its chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had the most "impeccable credentials" among opposition leaders to lead a front of opposition parties against Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the next Lok Sabha polls.
The Trinamool claim came a day after Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar had convened a meeting of the opposition parties to discuss future strategy, which the Trinamool Congress didn't attend. Trinamool leaders claimed they were not invited to the meeting, but NCP sources disputed this.
Interestingly, Trinamool Lok Sabha member Dinesh Trivedi was sent by his party to attend the 'save the Constitution' rally that Pawar had organised in Mumbai on Janaury 26. On Tuesday, Trivedi was his party's representative at the launch of Yashwant Sinha-led political platform 'Rashtra Manch'.
The Congress party has, however, conveyed to the NCP that Sonia Gandhi continued to be the chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Sonia Gandhi has now convened a meeting of Opposition parties on Thursday evening, after the presentation of the Union Budget, to discuss future strategy.
The speculation that the Modi government might advance the Lok Sabha elections to the end of this year, along with the assembly polls in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram, has spurred the Opposition to get its act together.
But, Pawar and Banerjee, both of whom are former Congress leaders, are unwilling to accept Congress President Rahul Gandhi as their leader. Trinamool Congress Rajya Sabha leader Derek O'Brien on Tuesday put forth a formulation that suggested that only Banerjee had the "impeccable credentials" to qualify for the leadership role.
"It is only natural that someone with impeccable credentials should play the lead role in the next Lok Sabha elections," O'Brien said. He put forth five credentials - the leader should be the undisputed chief of their party, need to have been the former chief minister of a state, should be currently ruling a state, should have been the member of the union cabinet in the past and should have at least two decades of political experience.
According to this, only Banerjee and Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik qualify, since Pawar isn't currently a chief minister of any state. However, Trinamool sources pointed out that Patnaik served as a union minister only briefly.
Congress leadership dismissed this formulation. A Congress leader said baton in most other political parties has also passed to the younger generation, who do not share whatever misgivings that Pawar and Banerjee might have in acknowledging Rahul Gandhi as their leader. The Congress leader said Samajwadi Party is now headed by Akhilesh Yadav, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam by MK Stalin and Tejaswi Yadav has emerged as the leader of the Rashtriya Janata Dal.
"All these leaders have a good equation with Rahul Gandhi. I am sure Pawar and Banerjee will also accept him now that he is preparing to reach out," the Congress leader said, but added that Congress will be the largest constituent of any anti-BJP political front, and the common leader would have to emerge from the Congress, just as Manmohan Singh had emerged in 2004 to lead the UPA governments.
However, the dispute is more about who would stitch this front together. In 2004, Communist Party of India (Marxist) chief Harkishen Singh Surjeet had helped Sonia Gandhi to put together pre-poll alliances and electoral understandings, and subsequently a post-poll UPA government.
According to Trinamool sources, the Congress party was keen that Banerjee attend Thursday's meeting, and had offered to reschedule the meeting. "But Banerjee is occupied until February 20," a source said. Trinamool leaders Sudip Bandyopadhyay and O'Brien will attend the February 1 meeting.
Congress leader M Veerappa Moily said in Hyderabad that Sonia Gandhi continued to be the UPA chairperson "because she can pull people (UPA allies) together. She has demonstrated (this) in 2004 and 2009."
Moily said he was not surprised that Pawar has taken interest in bringing opposition parties together. "He (Pawar) has been part of both the UPA (governments). UPA is still intact. No one has walked out of UPA. Both in 2009 and 2004, he (Pawar) has been part of our alliance. It's not a surprise," Moily said.