In a show of unity that has been rare in recent times, 22 opposition parties in an online meeting called by Congress president Sonia Gandhi attacked the government's response to the coronavirus crisis and put out a charter of demands that include direct cash transfer of Rs 7,500 for the poorest, transport for migrants and a "genuine" economic package.
The centre must also consult states, the parties agreed, accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government of "usurping" the power of states.
"This is neither the time for government at the centre to indulge in showmanship nor one-upmanship. This is the time for a gigantic collective endeavour. This is what the people of India need, and this is what the people of India demand," said a statement by "like-minded parties".
Opposition parties represent over 60 per cent of India's people, they reminded.
Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda were among those who joined the Zoom conference but Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav and Arvind Kejriwal were notable absentees.
The opposition parties called for a lockdown exit strategy, commenting that the government had failed in its responsibilities. They also called for a new financial package, saying: "The Rs 20 lakh crore package and its contents mislead the people of India. We demand that government present a revised and comprehensive package that will be a true fiscal stimulus in order to stimulate demand in the economy."
The opposition's demands include:
- Direct cash transfer of Rs. 7,500 a month for six months. Rs 10,000 to be paid immediately, rest over five months
- Free distribution of 10 kg food grains to the needy for the next six months. Increasing MGNREGA work days to 200
- Free transport for migrant workers to their home
- Reverse "unilateral" policy decisions like labour law changes
- Restore Parliamentary functioning and oversight with immediate effect
- Consult State governments while allowing flights
Opening the meeting, Sonia Gandhi said the central government had abandoned any pretence of being democratic. "All power is now concentrated in one office, the PMO," the Congress president said.
Stating that the economy was "gravely crippled", the Congress chief said every economist of repute had advised an immediate need for a massive fiscal stimulus but "the Prime Minister's announcement of a grand Rs 20 lakh crore package - and the Finance Minister spelling out its details over the next five days -- has turned out to be a cruel joke on the country."
For Uddhav Thackeray, whose Shiv Sena was a BJP ally for 35 years but has now teamed up with the NCP and Congress to rule Maharashtra, this was the first such opposition meeting.
"We asked for the migrants to be sent in the first four days , but they refused. But now there is a fear of the virus spreading," Mr Thackeray said, accusing the BJP of playing politics in the virus crisis.
Congress MP Rahul Gandhi remarked: "We are the only country in the world which has increased in cases after the lockdown and there is a fear it will increase after the lockdown." He has repeatedly called the lockdown a "pause button" and accused the government of fumbling over its exit strategy.