Congress president Sonia Gandhi on Friday made a strong attack on the BJP-led government over its handling of the situation created by coronavirus, saying it has no exit strategy from lockdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's announcement Rs 20 lakh crore package and subsequent details had turned out to be "cruel joke" and the ruling dispensation has embarked on a "wild adventure of so-called reforms including a grand clearance sale of PSUs and repeal of labour laws".
In her opening remarks at the meeting of opposition parties through video conferencing, the first such meeting since the lockdown was announced in March, she said "the defining image" of the pandemic has been the lakhs of migrant workers, many with children, walking hundreds of kilometres, without money, food or medicines, desperate to reach their home states.
Leaders of 22 "like-minded" opposition parties including West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda and NCP leader Sharad Pawar took part in the meeting. BSP and Samajwadi Party did not attend the meeting.
Gandhi said India was facing an economic crisis even before the first coronavirus cases were identified and demonetisation and "hasty and flawed" implementation of GST were among its main causes.
"The economic downturn began in 2017-18. Seven quarters of declining GDP growth was no ordinary event; it was unprecedented. Yet, the government carried on with its misguided policies and incompetent governance," she said.
Noting that a number of renowned economists had predicted that 2020-21 will end with negative growth of up to minus 5 per cent, she said the "consequences will be catastrophic".
"That the present government has no solutions is worrying, but that it has no empathy or compassion for the poor and vulnerable is heartbreaking," she said.
Alleging that "the economy has been gravely crippled", Gandhi said every economist of repute had advised an immediate need for a massive fiscal stimulus.
"The Prime Minister's announcement on May 12 of a grand Rs 20 lakh crore package - and the Finance Minister spelling out its details over the next five days, have turned out to be a cruel joke on the country," she said.
Noting that the WHO declared COVID-19 as a pandemic on March 11, she said the opposition parties expressed their full support to the government. "Even when the lockdown was imposed on March 24, with barely four hours' notice, all of us supported the decision despite its suddenness and obvious unpreparedness of the government," she said.
Gandhi said the "initial optimism of the Prime Minister that the war against the virus would conclude in 21 days has turned out to be misplaced".
"It seems that the virus is here to stay until a vaccine is found. I am also of the view that the government was uncertain about the criteria for lockdowns, nor does it have an exit strategy. Successive lockdowns have yielded diminishing returns. The government also stumbled badly on the testing strategy and the import of test kits. Meanwhile, the pandemic continues to take its toll," she said.
She accused the government of ignoring the poor, agricultural workers, retrenched workers, shopkeepers, large sections of MSMEs as also organised industries.
"Apart from the plight of the migrant workers, those who have been cruelly ignored include the 13 crore families in the bottom half of the population, namely - the tenant farmers and landless agricultural workers; the laid-off or retrenched workers and employees; the shopkeepers and the self-employed; the 5.8 crore out of the 6.3 crore MSMEs; and organized industries, including the large businesses, that drive our country's growth," she said.
Accusing the government of ignoring suggestions of opposition, she said many like-minded opposition parties had demanded that cash must be transferred to the poor, free grain must be distributed to all families and that buses and trains must be arranged for the migrant workers to go back to their homes.
"We emphasized that wage assistance and wage protection funds must be set up to protect the employees and the employers. Our pleas have fallen on deaf ears," she said.
Gandhi said no consultation had been held with stakeholders on reforms being undertaken.
"Far from offering succour and support, the government has embarked on a wild adventure of so-called reforms including a grand clearance sale of PSUs and repeal of labour laws. There is not even a pretence of consultation with stakeholders or debate in Parliament. We deplore these unilateral moves," she said.
Gandhi also alleged that the government has "abandoned any pretence of being a democratic government" and said there is no indication if Parliament or standing committees will be summoned to meet.
"All power is now concentrated in one office, the PMO. The spirit of federalism which is an integral part of our Constitution is all but forgotten. There is no indication either if the two Houses of Parliament or the Standing Committees will be summoned to meet," she said.
Gandhi said it is the duty of the opposition to offer constructive criticism and suggestions, and be the voice of the people.