‘Govt uncertain about lockdown, does not have exit plan’: Sonia Gandhi at opposition meet

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By
May 22, 2020 05:30 PM IST

Addressing a meeting of 22 like-minded parties held through video-conferencing, Sonia Gandhi described Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s May 12 announcement of the Rs 20 lakh crore stimulus package as a “cruel joke” on the country.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi on Friday attacked the Centre, saying it has “abandoned any pretence” of being a democratic government and all power is now concentrated in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) while the “spirit of federalism is all but forgotten”.

Addressing a meeting of 22 like-minded parties held through video-conferencing, she also described Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s May 12 announcement of the Rs 20 lakh crore stimulus package as a “cruel joke” on the country.

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Gandhi came down heavily on the government for giving just a four-hour notice for imposing the nationwide lockdown on March 24 to contain the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

“All of us supported the decision despite its suddenness and obvious unpreparedness of the government,” she said.

This is the first meeting of the opposition parties after the nationwide lockdown came into force on March 25.

The meeting is attended by former Prime Minister and Janata Dal (Secular) leader HD Deve Gowda, Maharashtra chief minister and Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray and his colleague Sanjay Raut, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) president Sharad Pawar and his party leader Praful Patel, Trinamool Congress supremo and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and her colleague Derek O’Brien, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chief MK Stalin, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, Communist Party of India (CPI) general secretary D Raja and Jharkhand chief minister and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) chief Hemant Soren.

Sharad Yadav of the Loktantrik Janata Dal (LJD), Tejashwi Yadav and Manoj Jha of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) leader PK Kunhalikutty, Omar Abdullah of the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (JKNC), All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) chief Badruddin Ajmal, Jayant Choudhary of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) chief Upendra Kushwaha, Jitin Ram Manjhi of the Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM), NK Premachandran of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), Kerala Congress (Mani) leader Jose K Mani, Raju Shetty of the Swabhiman Paksh, Thol Thirumavalavan of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) and Prof Kondandaram of the Telangana Jana Samiti (TJS) too are attending.

Apart from Gandhi, the Congress is represented by Rahul Gandhi, AK Antony, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, mallikarjun Kharge and Ahmed Patel.

However, the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) skipped the meeting.

In her opening remarks, the Congress chief also said the initial optimism of the Prime Minister that the war against the virus would conclude in 21 days has turned out to be misplaced.

“It seems that the virus is here to stay until a vaccine is found. I am also of the view that the government was uncertain about the criteria for lockdowns, nor does it have an exit strategy. Successive lockdowns have yielded diminishing returns,” she claimed.

Gandhi claimed that the defining image of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the lakhs of migrant workers, many with children, walking hundreds of kilometres, without money, food or medicines, desperate to reach their home states.

“Apart from the plight of the migrant workers, those who have been cruelly ignored include the 13 crore families at the bottom half of the population, including tenant farmers and landless agricultural workers, laid off or retrenched workers and employees, shopkeepers and self-employed, the 5.8 crore out of the 6.3 crore MSMEs, and organised industries, including the large businesses, that drive our country’s growth,” she said.

Gandhi said India was facing an economic crisis even before the first coronavirus cases were identified. “Demonetisation and a hasty and flawed GST were amongst its main causes. The economic downturn began in 2017-18. Seven quarters of declining GDP growth was no ordinary event; it was unprecedented. Yet, the government carried on with its misguided policies and incompetent governance,” she said.

“The economy has been gravely crippled. Every economist of repute had advised an immediate need for a massive fiscal stimulus. The Prime Minister’s announcement on May 12 of a grand Rs 20 lakh crore package - and the finance minister (Nirmala Sitharaman) spelling out its details over the next five days, have turned out to be a cruel joke on the country,” the Congress chief alleged.

Gandhi said the opposition parties had demanded that cash must be transferred to the poor, free grain be distributed to all families, buses and trains be arranged for migrant workers to go back to their homes and wage assistance and wage protection funds be set up to protect the employees and the employers.

“Our pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Far from offering succour and support, the government has embarked on a wild adventure of so-called reforms including a grand clearance sale of PSUs and repeal of labour laws,” she added.

“There is not even pretence of consultation with stakeholders or debate in Parliament. We deplore these unilateral moves.”

The Congress president said a number of renowned economists are predicting that 2020-21 will end with negative growth of up to minus 5%.

“The consequences will be catastrophic. That the present government has no solutions is worrying but that it has no empathy or compassion for the poor and vulnerable is heartbreaking,” she added.

“The government has also abandoned any pretence of being a democratic government. All power is now concentrated in one office, the PMO. The spirit of Federalism, which is an integral part of our Constitution, is all but forgotten.”

Gandhi claimed that there is no indication either if the two Houses of Parliament or the standing committees will be summoned to meet.

“It is our duty to offer constructive criticism and suggestions, and be the voice of the people,” she said.

At the beginning, Gandhi expressed profound “sense of sorrow” at the enormous damage caused in West Bengal and Odisha by Cyclone Amphan, including the loss of 80 lives.

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    Aurangzeb Naqshbandi covers politics and keeps a close watch on developments in Jammu & Kashmir. He has been a journalist for 16 years.

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