REFLECTING an Opposition with its highest tally in 10 years and presenting a united front, in his first speech as Leader of Opposition, Rahul Gandhi picked up the threads of his election campaign to counter the government on several fronts: from accusing it of having created an atmosphere of fear to alleging that it had spread violence and hatred in the name of Hinduism; from the crisis in Manipur to how demonetisation had wrecked employment.

At the same time, Gandhi wrapped up his nearly two-hour speech by dialing down to say that the Opposition was ready to work together with the Narendra Modi government in the national interest.

Participating in the debate on Motion of Thanks to the President’s Address, Gandhi began his speech — the first by a recognized LoP in Lok Sabha in a decade — on a fractious note. Pointing to the Treasury Benches, he said that “those who call themselves Hindus… are engaged in violence and hate.”

This prompted a rare intervention and rebuttal by Prime Minister Narendra Modi who said it was a matter of concern that Hinduism was being equated with hate and violence. Gandhi said he was talking about the BJP and the ruling party is not the sole representative of Hinduism. “Ye theka nahi hai BJP ka,” he said.

It was not just Modi.

Several senior ministers, including Amit Shah, Rajnath Singh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Bhupender Yadav, got up to counter Gandhi’s charges and claims on multiple occasions. All along, Opposition members rallied behind Gandhi signaling that the electoral unity had carried over to Parliament as well.

Festive offer

Gandhi invoked one of his earlier themes of framing Hinduism in opposition to Hindutva. Holding a picture of Shiva, he invoked the “abhaya mudra” to say that Shiva’s message is all about fearlessness and non-violence and reiterated his “daro mat”, “darao mat” message — a refrain from his speeches going back to 2017.

From the rise in prices to Manipur, unemployment, demonetisation, Agniveer and paper leaks, Gandhi used each to criticize the Modi Government. He accused it of treating Agniveers as “use and throw labourers” and pushing Manipur into civil war. On NEET, he said it is no longer a professional exam but has become a “commercial” one, suited for rich students.

He accused the BJP of not following the essential tenets of Hinduism and charged it with spreading hate and violence against minorities. He accused Modi of having created an atmosphere of fear even within the BJP, curbing dissent and targeting the Opposition. He also sent a message to allies in the INDIA bloc saying he doesn’t “just represent the Congress party” and that he will “treat every single party with love and affection.”

“When I became LoP, I realized something that I had not realized before…After becoming LoP, all my personal dreams, my personal aspirations, my personal fears have to be put aside. I am now actually two people. I am not one person. I am a Constitutional person and my job is to be LoP to represent all these parties equally. In fact, I don’t just represent the Congress party. I represent every single party. And I have to treat every single party with love and affection. So when Hemant Soren is in jail or (Arvind) Kejriwal is in jail, it should hurt me, it should disturb me.”

And his message to the government: “This country has a government and you are the government, and you are whether we like it or not, you are the government of India, elected by the people and I agree to that, but I would say to you that as individual members as the Cabinet, you do not spread fear in this country, that you do not spread hatred in this country…Do not be fearful…Even the Cabinet members, do not be fearful. You have a constitutional position… That is the way this country has to be run. We, as the Opposition, don’t take us as your enemies. We are not your enemies…We are sincerely here to make your work easier as long as you follow the basic principles that we have stated.”

“I am more than happy, all of us are more than happy, to discuss anything you want without being nasty, without being aggressive.. anything you want we are ready to discuss. So please let us work together to take this country forward. You are the government. We have to accept that. You got 240 seats. So I congratulate you on that. At least accept it…So I would say we want to both work for this country, work with the spirit of bravery, work without violence, work without hatred.”

Earlier, Gandhi invoked Lord Shiva and “Abhaya mudra” and said those who call themselves Hindus are spreading violence and hatred round the clock.

“Shiv ji kahte hain, daro mat, darao mat, aur abhay mudra dikhate hain. Ahimsa ki baat karte hain aur trishool ko zamin me gaarh dete hain aur jo log apne aap ko Hindu kahte hain woh 24 ghanta hinsa, hinsa, hinsa, nafrat, nafrat, nafrat, asatya, asatya, asatya. Aap Hindu ho hi nahin. (Lord Shiva says do not be fearful…he buries the Trishul in the ground and those who call themselves Hindus, they chant violence, hatred, untruth…You are not a Hindu),” Gandhi said, adding that Hindu religion clearly prescribes that one should always follow the truth.

“Our symbol is Abhaya Mudra (fearlessness),” Gandhi said, showing his right hand and asking his party members to show the symbol. As Gandhi made his remarks, BJP members protested and sought an apology from him. To this, Rahul said that the shouting was because the “arrow had struck the heart.”

“You are not a Hindu… It is clearly said in Hindu religion that one should stand with the truth and should not be afraid of the truth,” he added. Speaker Om Birla said that Gandhi is the Leader of Opposition and his remarks should not hurt anyone.

The first to rise was PM Modi, who accused Rahul of calling “the entire Hindu society violent”. When Rahul countered by saying that Modi or the BJP did not stand in for “entire Hindu society”, other BJP leaders including Shah recorded their objection.

To this, Gandhi clarified that his remarks were targeted at the BJP. “Narendra Modi is not the entire Hindu society. The BJP is not the entire Hindu society. The RSS is not the entire Hindu society… The BJP has not taken any contract… All are Hindus here,” Gandhi said

He then said that even Ayodhya — the birthplace of Lord Ram — had sent a message to the BJP, going on to shake hands with Samajwadi Party MP Awadhesh Prasad, who defeated BJP’s Lallu Singh in the Faizabad seat which covers Ayodhya. “How far they have spread fear, I will give you an example of Ayodhya,” Gandhi said, alleging that people of Ayodhya whose land was acquired for the airport have not received compensation till date.

“Ayodhya ki janata ko daraya, poore desh ko dara diya (The people of Ayodhya were intimidated, the entire country was intimidated),” he said. Gandhi repeatedly took swipes at the PM for his statement made in an interview during the poll campaign of his perception that he may be on a mission, divinely ordained.

“The parmaatma speaks to Modiji’s aatma directly, unlike us humans,” he said, wondering at one point whether the sudden move of demonetisation followed such “a message” from God.

Rahul also referred to another claim by Modi in an interview that it took a film for people to “get to know about Mahatma Gandhi”. “Can you understand the ignorance… that a movie has revived the Father of the Nation?” he said. At one point, Speaker Om Birla tried to interject saying everyone should respect the PM. Rahul countered that he did respect the PM very much and was only repeating what he (the PM) himself had said.

Rahul also tried to draw a difference between Modi and his ministers. “When I came in the morning, Rajnath Singh greeted me with a smile. Now Modiji is sitting. No smile… serious. Namaste bhi nahin karte… kahin Modi ji na dekh le (He doesn’t even greet, afraid that Modi ji might notice)… The same story is of Nitin Gadkari… Arre Ayodhya ki janta ko chodo, yeh toh BJP walon ko darate hain ( Leave aside the people of Ayodhya, Modi even has scared BJP people).

Again, Modi stood up, this time to counter: “Loktantra ne aur samvidhan ne mujhe sikhaya hai ki mujhe vipaksh ke neta ko gambheerta se lena chaahiye (Democracy and the Constitution have taught me to take the Leader of the Opposition with all seriousness). “