Power of states usurped by Centre: Oppn leaders

These demands include a direct cash transfer of Rs 7,500 to all families outside the income tax bracket and the immediate restoration of parliamentary functioning and oversight.
Congress chief Sonia Gandhi(PTI photo)
Congress chief Sonia Gandhi(PTI photo)
Updated on May 23, 2020 03:20 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByAurangzeb Naqshbandi

Alleging that the Centre has “unabashedly usurped powers” vested in states, and undermined “the constitutionally guaranteed federal democracy”, 22 opposition parties on Friday presented a 11-point charter of demands to the Union government to deal with the coronavirus disease pandemic and the economic distress resulting from the national lockdown.

These demands include a direct cash transfer of Rs 7,500 to all families outside the income tax bracket and the immediate restoration of parliamentary functioning and oversight.

At the end of what was its first meeting after the lockdown was imposed on March 25, the Opposition sharply criticised the government’s handling of the pandemic — with Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who chaired the meeting, alleging that power was concentrated in the Prime Minister’s Office, there was disregard for the plight of migrant workers, and the lockdown had been initiated with no exit plan.

In a statement at the end of a marathon meeting held through video-conferencing, the “like-minded parties” said they believe that this is neither the time for the central government to indulge in showmanship nor one-upmanship.

“It is important that the Centre reaches out and engages in a dialogue with all political parties in a systematic manner, listen seriously to the suggestions that we have to make, activate parliamentary institutions like standing committees, and be genuine in helping the states financially and otherwise,” the statement added.

The meeting was attended by former Prime Minister and Janata Dal (Secular) leader HD Deve Gowda; three serving chief ministers — Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha’s Hemant Soren; former Jammu & Kashmir chief minister and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah; Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) president Sharad Pawar; 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; Sharad Yadav of the Loktantrik Janata Dal (LJD), and Tejashwi Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), among others.

Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi also participated in the meetings along with other senior Congress leaders.

However, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) skipped the meeting despite being invited. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was not invited.

The Opposition has demanded, among other measures, the free distribution of 10kg food grains to the needy; increase in number of days under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme to 200; free transportation for all migrant workers to their home states; accurate and relevant information on Covid-19; reversal of all unilateral policy decisions, particularly the annulment of labour laws; release of substantial funds to state governments; communication of the Centre’s exit strategy from the lockdown; and a clear and meaningful economic strategy focused on revival and poverty alleviation.

Earlier, the Congress president, in her opening remarks, 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 that of millions of migrant workers, many with children, walking hundreds of kilometres, without money, food or medicines, desperate to reach their home states. She claimed that the government has disregarded the opposition’s demands and suggestions. “Our pleas have fallen on deaf ears...There is not even pretence of consultation with stakeholders or debate in Parliament. We deplore these unilateral moves.”

Gandhi 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.”

Thackeray — who attended an umbrella Opposition meeting for the first time since the new political alignment took place in Maharashtra — blamed the Centre for doing politics, even as states run by the opposition parties were cooperating with the Centre. Banerjee also said that this was not the time to do politics or discriminate between states, according to a person familiar with the meeting proceedings.

For his part, Pawar said the state governments are relaxing the conditions of lockdown but factories are not in a position to resume as workers have migrated to the villages. “We need to strategise to bring them back,” he said.

The BJP dismissed the Opposition’s claims and allegations.

Union minister Prakash Javadekar said that at a time when the whole country should be fighting the pandemic together, opposition parties were continuing with negative politics.

“The Congress and their allies used to question the central government about why the lockdown has not been extended and now they are asking why the lockdown is being extended. First they used to ask us why are people not being allowed to return to their native states, now when nearly 50,00,00 people have reached their native places they are trying to politicise the issue by sending a few buses for transporting people,” he said.

Mumbai-based political analyst Abhay Deshpande said the meeting represented an attempt by the opposition parties to form a pressure group to ensure adequate financial aid from the central government to non-BJP ruled states. “They want to collectively put pressure on the Centre to give adequate assistance to opposition-ruled states,” he added.

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