Checkmate Adityanath, Unite the Opposition, Seize the Moment

lakhimpur kheri

Caught in a web of his own sinister making, the saffron clad CEO of India’s most populous — and politically consequential — state, Ajay Bisht, aka (Yogi) Adityanath, may well have bitten more than he could chew. The cold-blooded barbarism behind the farmers’ deaths, crushed ruthlessly under the wheels of a speeding SUV, allegedly driven by the entitled scion of a union minister on October 3, has been followed by a series of actions that, instead of mitigating the political fallout of the deaths, have given a huge fillip to the political opposition. Or, at least should. Will the Opposition — fractured and often unfocussed — find it within itself to unite and rise, even as this tragic political moment has created waves of outrage across the nation?

Put differently, will each and all of the Opposition parties find it within their better selves to battle the issue of rapidly shrinking democratic spaces and the idea of dissent while preserving spaces for themselves within this crucial fight?

The national outrage after Hathras rose and dissipated; the organised and vicious attacks on Muslim lives and livelihood across the state did not draw political ire; the killing of a police official and widespread extra-judicial killings did not light the spark. Will the mowing down of farmers by the scion of a union minister, four months before the state polls, provide this much-needed catapult?

Priyanka Gandhi’s detention and arrest was outrageous and should remain the focus of a sustained political attack. The non-BJP Opposition would do well to seize this moment. All politicians, women leaders, civil society activists and others, need to call out her illegal detention and arrest for what it was: condemnable and untenable. It must not become a dangerous precedent.

Allowed free reign and rampage by a chief minister that sets little store for the rule of law or the Constitution since 2017, the police and administration detained Priyanka Gandhi, the Congress national general secretary, well before dawn around 4.30 a.m. on Monday, October 4. Purportedly held under Section 151 of the CrPC, while travelling within the district of Sitapur, approximately 20 km from Lakhimpur Kheri which was under Section 144 — reportedly Section 144 had not been imposed in Sitapur — she was not allowed to move out of the guest house till late Wednesday evening (October 6). She was ‘arrested’ later. Her vehicle had only four or five people, including Congress spokesman Deepinder Hooda.

In this arbitrary move, the Yogi government went far beyond its own outrageously undemocratic precedent. For instance, after the Hathras rape case — Rahul and Priyanka, opposition leaders and journalists, were not allowed to go to the spot. Clearly, this means, that when it comes to the death of farmers, the Adityanath regime is on a weak wicket and is badly trying to retrieve a no-win situation.

Points of gross overreach: can the police arrest a woman after sundown? Can an arrest be made without any warrant? Was it an arrest, as Priyanka claimed, or a detention? And did the police (male) have the right to manhandle her?

She was not allowed access to a lawyer, not produced within 24 hours before a court. While a few MPs from the Trinamool Congress and the Aam Admi Party (AAP) were able to drive into Lakhimpur Kheri, Priyanka, clearly feared or targeted by the UP government, was not allowed. However, she used her time with political acumen. The video of the arrest went viral along with Priyanka’s angry response, she was shown sweeping the dust-strewn room clean (metaphorically — cleaning UP of the muck piled up?), she gave interviews, addressed Congress workers. Indeed, the vociferous mashaal yatra by Congress workers late on Tuesday night in Sitapur is evidence that she has found waves of support.

The ‘Priyanka masterpiece’ was the video she addressed to the prime minister, who, ironically, found time to inaugurate ‘75 developmental projects’ in the ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’ in Lucknow on Tuesday. Never mind that he was just a three-hour drive away — he neither had the grace nor the time or inclination to pay homage to the dead farmers and a journalist in Lakhimpur Kheri.

For a full two days, after brokering some kind of a hurried and tentative ‘settlement’ with those who had died, both the UP administration and the Centre were busy deploying security to detain all opposition leaders to keep them away from meeting families. While the main accused, Ashish Mishra, who has been identified by multiple eyewitnesses, has not been questioned, detained or arrested.

Late last evening, the sister-brother duo, Priyanka and Rahul, left Sitapur for Lakhimpur Kheri to meet the families of the victims and share their sorrow. On October 10, next Sunday, Priyanka plans to address a ‘mammoth rally’ in the prime minister’s constituency of Varanasi, Kashi. Tomorrow, Akhilesh Yadav, a former chief minister and major opposition player in the state, also detained under house arrest, will also reach the village. The chief minister of Chhattisgarh, Bhupendra Baghel, earlier not allowed to land in Lucknow, accompanied Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka, along with the newly appointed chief minister of Punjab, Charanjit Singh Channi, to Lakhimpur Kheri. Both the state governments of Chhattisgarh and Punjab have committed Rs 50 lakh to the families, even as the UP government had earlier announced Rs 45 lakh. Hopefully, the family of the lone journalist killed will also receive fair reparation.

Now is the time for the entire opposition to unite and prove its mettle in UP. They should not only condemn the arrest of Priyanaka and reach Sitapur in solidarity. They should hold joint protest rallies and press conferences. NCP chief Sharad Pawar has likened the killings to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, the Maharashtra cabinet has passed a resolution against the killings. Other opposition parties should join in effectively and now, and sustain the resistance.

It’s time that the Yogi government’s continuous and brazen brutality must end and this is the time to do it — in terms of tactics and timing — as the UP assembly elections loom in the horizon. The relentless, stoic and courageous farmers’ movement may keep its distance in terms of alignment with any political party, but that should not stop opposition unity against this regime. The demand for the sacking of the MOS-Home in the central cabinet needs repeated reiteration.

Democracies are messy and that often means that parties jostle for space around issues that may catch the political opposition. Typically, among others, these issues are prices rise, joblessness, corruption, national security, rising crime, atrocities on Dalits and adivasis, attacks on women — if we see the more benign years. The Parliament of yore, saw a young Atal Behari Vajpayee being given dignified space by then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, even as he made strong and stringent criticism of the government during the Chinese incursion in 1962. Crasser and more aggressive times have seen women leaders of the belligerent Right-wing breast-beat in public over the deaths of our soldiers at the Pakistani border, or, around the rise of oil or food prices — (incidentally, petrol prices have hit an all-time high of over Rs 100 a litre right now, and cooking gas prices are being increased every other day).

Post the 2008 terror attacks on my home city, Mumbai, the arrival of a chief minister from the neighbouring state (Narendra Modi, Gujarat) to hog the ‘opposition moment’, was not vilified as ‘vulturous’ or ‘politicking around the issue’. Indeed, the late Kavita Karkare, grief-stricken and bereaved after her husband, Hemant Karkare, was gunned down that fateful night (November 26) — had firmly declined the largesse offered during Modi’s visit.

To battle the regime that imposed the Emergency (1975-1977), the Left and Right fought together. All of this happened and could happen because the fundamental principles and ethical basis of a secular democracy were universally cherished. This means the right of the political opposition to have its democratic space, and its right to protest and express political dissent when a democracy turns authoritarian. Hence, for the Opposition to let slip this opportunity would be a huge blunder.

The question is, will this tragedy that has exposed the Yogi-Modi combine yet again, actually emerge as a defining one in battling a majoritarian and dictatorial regime, and resurrect the essence and spirit of a plural and secular constitutional democracy — under severe strain in recent times? Indeed, will the Opposition unite and seize this historic moment?



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