Two days after Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi presided over a seven-hour meeting to address leadership issues within her party, she anchored a two-hour web meeting on Wednesday with seven chief ministers from opposition parties to brainstorm over issues of national importance.
Significantly, the three non-Congress chief ministers -- West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee, Jharkhand’s Hemant Soren and Maharashtra’ Uddhav Thackeray -- who spoke before Congress chief ministers -- Punjab’s Amrinder Singh, Rajasthan’s Ashok Gehlot, Chhattisgarh’s Bhupesh Bhagel and Puducherry’s Velu Narayanasamy -- stated the need to stand together and put up a fight against the ruling party. Two common issues on which nearly all of them agreed to unite against the BJP was the upcoming NEET and JEE exams, and the non-payment of GST dues to states.
Shortly after the online discussion, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh directed the state Advocate General to coordinate with his counterparts in other opposition-ruled states to file a collective review petition in the Supreme Court seeking deferment of the examinations.
Banerjee also said that she, along with the other chief ministers, has decided to move a review petition against the decision of the Supreme Court to allow the examinations to be held on time, in the first week of September.
Interestingly, some of the points made by the 23 Congress "dissenters" in their letter to Gandhi were echoed in the discussion held on Wednesday. Soren said the opposition, compared to the ruling party, was looking quite weakened.
“We, as the opposition, are looking very weak right now. We are unable to raise issues against the government in an effective manner,” he said. Soren also alleged that the BJP was abusing its powers at the Centre to intimidate states governed by opposition parties. This, in the coming time, "will be a big blow to the spirit of federalism".
Thackeray said the time has come to decide: "ladna hai ya marna hai [whether to fight or to fear]." He said that if the opposition parties were in agreement to aggressively take on the BJP-ruled centre, then there was no point in fearing the consequences. Talking about the Panchayati Raj systems introduced by former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to strengthen the federal structure of the country, which he said was under threat today, he added, "If the Centre thinks it can decide everything for us, then soon there may be no need for state governments."
Thackeray was supported by Banerjee, who said the opposition needed to stand united "in one voice". She said her state government was being bulldozed by the central government. "West Bengal was supposed to receive Rs 4,100 crore from the central government for the month as its share of GST. Till now we have not received a single penny. How are we supposed to run the state, that too at a time of pandemic? Will the money fall from the skies?" she asked.
Gehlot, Bhagel and Narayanasamy proposed that state representatives should meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi to apprise him about the issues faced by them.
Singh, who also agreed with making a submission before Modi, said all sources of revenue in his state were drying up and that Punjab was likely to end the financial year with a fiscal deficit of Rs 25,000 crore at a time when Covid-19 is spreading fast through smaller towns and villages.
"The state assembly is about to start in three days from now. As a precautionary measure, I asked everyone to get tested for Covid-19. And as per the latest information I have just received, 23 of my MLAs have tested positive for Covid. If this is the state of my legislators, imagine what is the situation in the state," he asked.
Gandhi had opened the discussion with the remark that non-payment of GST dues to states is "nothing short of betrayal on the part of the Modi government".