New Delhi: Congress president Sonia Gandhi on Friday urged top opposition leaders to rise above political compulsions to take on the BJP in the interest of the nation and start planning "systematically" to realise the "ultimate goal" of winning the 2024 Lok Sabha polls to provide a government that believes in the values of the freedom movement and provisions of the Constitution.
Gandhi gave the clarion call at a virtual meeting of leaders of 19 opposition parties including NCP supremo Sharad Pawar and four non-Congress chief ministers - TMC's Mamata Banerjee (West Bengal), DMK's M K Stalin (Tamil Nadu), Shiv Sena's Uddhav Thackeray (Maharashtra) and JMM's Hemant Soren (Jharkhand) -- hosted by her, after which they decided to move unitedly against the BJP and hold joint protests across the country from September 20 to 30.
Gandhi also told the meeting -- one of the biggest gatherings of opposition leaders in recent times - that there is simply no alternative to working cohesively.
The opposition leaders urged the people of the country to save India for a better tomorrow even as Pawar said those who believe in democracy and secularism must come together for saving the democratic principles and ethos of our country and collectively draw up a "time-bound action programme".
"We must collectively prioritize each issue and solve them one by one to give our country a good present and future," Pawar said in a series of tweets.
Chief Minister Banerjee also urged all parties to unitedly defeat the BJP in the next general elections due in 2024, and called for a core committee of leaders to chalk out the joint agitational programme.
Chief Minister Stalin tweeted to say federalism is being "destroyed" due to the "scant respect" the BJP has for states' rights, and it is imperative that the opposition stands united at this hour.
The leaders also put out a 11-point charter of demands before the government, including a Supreme Court-monitored probe into the Pegasus snooping row, repeal of the three farm laws, early elections in Jammu and Kashmir and early release of all political detainees and a high-level probe into the Rafale jet deal.
"Of course, the ultimate goal is the 2024 Lok Sabha election for which we have to begin to plan systematically with the single-minded objective of giving a government to our country that believes in the values of the freedom movement and in the principles and provisions of our Constitution," Sonia Gandhi told the leaders, as she made a strong pitch for opposition unity.
"This is a challenge, but together we can and must rise to it because there is simply no alternative to working cohesively. We all have our compulsions, but clearly, the time has come when the interests of our nation demand that we rise above those," she added.
Noting that the 75th anniversary of the country's independence is indeed the most appropriate occasion "to reaffirm our individual and collective resolve", Gandhi assured the opposition leaders, saying "the Indian National Congress will not be found wanting".
Chief Minister Banerjee asked leaders of the opposition parties to put aside differences and fight unitedly against the BJP.
The TMC supremo in her address said the opposition parties should forget who will be the leader, said a press release issued by the party.
"Let us forget who will be the leader and keep our personal interests aside. Every opposition party should be brought in. The fight is against BJP. In these meetings those not allied with the Congress must also be invited," she added.
"The people will lead, they are the leaders. Let us set up a core group and work together to decide on next line of action and programmes, the release quoted Banerjee as saying.
In a joint statement issued by leaders of the 19 parties, they said, "We will jointly organise protest actions all over the country from 20th to 30th September, 2021."
The leaders said the forms of these public protest actions will be decided by the respective state units of their parties, depending on the concrete conditions of the Covid regulations and protocols in the states. These forms, amongst others, may include dharnas, protest demonstrations and hartals, according to the joint statement.
"We, the leaders of 19 Opposition parties, call upon the people of India to rise to the occasion to defend our secular, democratic, republican order with all our might. Save India today, so that we can change it for a better tomorrow," they said.
The meeting convened by Sonia Gandhi came days after the washout of the recent Monsoon Session of Parliament following a relentless demand by a united opposition for a discussion on the Pegasus snooping controversy, which the government said was a "non-issue" and declined. The Centre, however, managed to pass several bills amid the ruckus by the opposition parties in Parliament which adjourned sine die on August 11, two days ahead of the scheduled date of August 13.
The Congress chief said the Monsoon Session was a washout entirely due to the government's "obstinate and arrogant unwillingness to discuss and debate urgent issues of public importance" such as the Pegasus row, a repeal of three "anti-farmer" laws, price rise, the assault on federalism and the institutions of democracy that affect each and every citizen of the country.
Inspite of this, the session was marked by the determined unity that all the opposition parties demonstrated for over 20 days in both the houses, she said.
"We functioned in a coordinated manner with daily discussions among our floor leaders.
"I am confident that this unity will be sustained in the future sessions of Parliament as well, but the larger political battle has to be fought outside it," Gandhi said.
Former chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir Farooq Abdullah(NC) and Mehbooba Mufti(PDP), CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, CPI's D Raja and Sharad Yadav of the Loktantrik Janata Dal were also present at the meeting.
The Congress, TMC, NCP, DMK, Shiv Sena, JMM, CPI, CPI(M), NC, RJD, AIUDF, VCK, Loktantrik Janata Dal, JD(S), RLD, RSP, Kerala Congress (Mani), PDP and IUML were the 19 parties who were represented at the meeting. Former prime minister Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi, both Congress, also attended.
Leaders of the AAP, BSP and SP were not present at the meeting. SP leader Akhilesh Yadav, however, wrote a letter to Sonia Gandhi expressing his inability to attend as he was touring the interior areas of Uttar Pradesh. According to the joint statement, the document was sent to him for his approval.
The opposition leaders also strongly condemned the manner in which the Centre and the ruling BJP "disrupted" the Monsoon Session of Parliament, refusing to discuss the alleged illegal usage of the Pegasus military spyware to conduct unauthorised surveillance, the demand for a repeal of the three "anti-farmer" laws, the "gross mismanagement" of the COVID-19 pandemic, inflation and price rise as also the spiralling unemployment.
All these and many other issues affecting the country and its people were deliberately ignored by the government, they alleged.
Targeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the opposition leaders said his Independence Day address did not focus on a single issue concerning people's miseries.
"The speech was full of rhetoric, empty slogans and disinformation. In fact, it was a repackaging of earlier speeches given in 2019 and 2020. This speech is an ominous warning that lives of our people will continue to be ruined further," the joint statement said.