Why We Need More Opposition Leaders Like Mahua Moitra in Parliament


Why We Need More Opposition Leaders Like Mahua Moitra in Parliament

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

Earlier this week, the newly minted Trinamool MP, Mahua Moitra wasn’t necessarily a household name. This despite the fact that she has been a political figure for a decade now. The 44-year-old legislator quit her job as an investment banker in the US and joined the Congress, before signing up with the TMC and becoming their official spokesperson. Some might remember Moitra as the woman who flipped Arnab Goswami the bird when he wouldn’t stop interrupting her on his Times Now NewsHour Debate in 2014. Then, she became just one of many new faces in the House after winning from Karimpur constituency. But on Tuesday, her maiden speech in Parliament made waves in India and internationally, forcing her fellow MPs to recognise her as a voice to be reckoned with.

In an impassioned address that has gone viral on social media, Moitra tore into the ruling party, listing out the signs of the government’s degradation of the Constitution and democratic values. She cited xenophobic nationalism, using the chaos around the National Register of Citizens to bolster her argument, and taking aim at ministers who “cannot produce degrees to show that they graduated from college, [yet] expect dispossesed poor people to show papers as proof they belong to this country.” It’s one of the many quotable bits — including quotes from leaders like Maulana Azad and poets Rahat Indori and Ramdhari Singh Dinkar — that has made her speech so popular

Moitra didn’t stop there, as this was only her first point of seven against the Centre’s governance. She went on to skewer the NDA government for disregarding human rights and a tenfold increase in hate crimes since 2013; the control of mass media; obsession with national security even as terrorist attacks increase; unconstitutional intertwining of state and religion; disdain for intellectuals and the arts; and finally, eroding electoral independence by transferring key officials and spending thousands of crores on campaigning.

Clearly, Moitra was in no mood to pull punches. She capped off her inaugural speech with a parliamentary mic drop, saying that the problems she detailed can be observed in the US Holocaust Memorial on a poster about the early signs of fascism. It’s a word that is increasingly bandied about in liberal living rooms or noisy Twitter threads. But in a measured, logical argument on the floor of the House, where the wishy-washy rhetoric of convenience is the order of the day? Whether you agree with her assessment of the current administration or not, it can’t be denied that Moitra possesses a rare courage and conviction. Even as shouts threatened to drown her out from the other side of the aisle, she refused to submit to the heckling.

And yet, she never descended to the level of political muckraking that has become standard among our MPs. Moitra did not lose her cool, call out names, or use communal identities as a tool; she came prepared with an arsenal of facts and figures to support each of her points, and targeted both major parties – the BJP and the Congress – for muddying narratives by not sticking to the truth. Her professional, needle-sharp speech has marked her as a stateswoman in the making, who doesn’t need to foster petty outrage to get attention. If only other members of the Opposition, including from Moitra’s own party, followed her example, we might have fewer daily headlines about the latest nonsensical statement by an MP, and more actual work done in Parliament. 

In post-mortems of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, many liberals have acknowledged the very issues Moitra mentioned, while lamenting that the Opposition offered no feasible alternative. The BJP easily managed to create an atmosphere of a presidential election thanks to a historic media spend and an immensely charismatic candidate against whom few politicians can compete. Even after an embarrassing defeat, Rahul Gandhi, the reluctant and perennially unsuccessful Congress scion, is being exhorted to stay on by his party leaders. Meanwhile, young BJP leaders like Tejasvi Surya, who also made his debut speech on Tuesday, have similarly failed to bring a fresh perspective to the ruling party. Surya spent his time blaming Lutyens and insisting that the re-election of a “chaiwallah” was proof positive that democracy is flourishing. Unfortunately, putting the same old talking points in a millennial’s mouth does not equate to progress.

If only other members of the Opposition, including from Moitra’s own party, followed her example, we might have fewer daily headlines about the latest nonsensical statement by an MP, and more actual work done in Parliament.

Since the glory days of UPA-I, non-BJP supporters have been frustrated by inconsistent ideologies from parties who serve only their self-interest, and centrists are finding it harder to ignore the BJP’s inexorable shift toward the right. In this barren political climate, Moitra has thrown a gauntlet in front of the status quo that could galvanise Parliament to raise the bar — or at least, dispense with their usual formula of kow-towing and shouting personal attacks.

Moitra opened her speech by acknowledging the BJP’s sweeping mandate, saying that a strong Opposition is more important than ever to balance the power of the Centre. It echoes the speech made in Rajya Sabha a day earlier by Congress member Ghulam Nabi Azad, who wondered, in this “New India”, where the ideals of the old India would go. Voices like Azad’s and Moitra’s provide a counterpoint to any singular view of nationalism, and preserve our diverse democracy — so no matter our political alignment, we should all be thankful for Moitra’s shake-up of Parliament.