At a meeting of 20 opposition parties in the national capital on January 13, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had suggested to other leaders that they should increasingly focus on exposing the Narendra Modi government’s “failures” on the economic front.
The protests against the amended citizenship law (CAA), and proposed national register of citizens (NRC), were then spreading to all corners of the country. Opposition leaders, particularly those in the Left parties, disagreed with Gandhi. They said opposition parties should not be seen to have abandoned the cause of anti-CAA protesters at this juncture.
Two months later on Thursday, Gandhi held a press conference in the Parliament House premises. It was called at a short notice. Gandhi’s press conference coincided with the Rajya Sabha discussion on the recent communal violence in Delhi. But Gandhi did not speak a work on the CAA, NRC or the National Population Register (NPR).
Instead, he focussed on the Modi government’s lack of preparedness in dealing with the novel coronavirus pandemic. He said the government lacked the intellectual wherewithal to find solutions to the mess it has created with the country’s economy. He compared the Modi government’s handling of the economy to that of Manmohan Singh-led UPA1’s during the global financial crisis in 2008.
Inside the Rajya Sabha, in his reply to the discussion, home minister Amit Shah clarified how no citizen will be marked ‘D’, or doubtful citizen. There were no strong rebuttals to Shah’s claims from Congress leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad and Anand Sharma. They only sought clarifications, and avoided responding to minister Ravi Shankar Prasad's attack later on that the Congress "misled" the minorities on CAA being "discriminatory".
However, Trinamool Congress’ Derek O’Brien and Communist Party of India (Marxist) chief took to social media to accused the home minister of misleading the country on CAA, NRC and NPR. They pointed out that the rules of the Citizenship Act, 2003, clearly state the NPR will be the basis for an NRC. Speaking in the Delhi Assembly on Friday, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal also asked the Centre to withdraw its plans to update the NPR and scrap NRC.
However, the Congress kept away from questioning Shah’s claims made in the Rajya Sabha. On Friday, Congress Lok Sabha leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury and spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala addressed a press conference where they again attacked the Modi government on its lack of preparations to prevent the spread of coronavirus, but sidestepped raking up Shah's speech.
Surjewala questioned the government on its “crony capitalism” in trying to save Yes Bank by making State Bank of India (SBI) depositors bail that bank out. He said the SBI has reduced the interest rate on saving accounts from 3.25 per cent to 3 per cent, and also interest on fixed deposits.
The Congress spokesperson said the total annual loss of interest of 44.51 crore SBI account holders would be Rs 6,764 crore, while the union cabinet has approved a ‘restructuring scheme’ for reviving Yes Bank where SBI will invest Rs 7,250 crore.
“The chronology is clear. The money to be invested in the sinking Yes Bank by SBI will be paid for by cutting the interest of 44.51 crore SBI account holders,” Surjewala said. The Congress spokesperson also questioned the union cabinet approving a relief package for telecom companies. He said this money is being extorted from pre-paid cell phone users whose phone tariffs have increased.
A senior opposition leader, who did not want to be named, said the Congress strategy was evident that it no longer wants to focus on an issue as “divisive” as the CAA as it wants to appeal to a wide section of urban and rural electorate that has taken to vote for the BJP since 2014 over economic issues that affect all across religions, regions and castes.
The economic impact of coronavirus has had Congress try get the political discourse away from issues of identity and on to those of livelihood. The question is how will the BJP now respond.