On March 14, 1998, Sonia Gandhi took over as the Congress president as an embattled party sacked Sitaram Kesri and brought her in to keep it together. Twenty years later, she is playing almost a similar role — of an anchor, seeking to keep the Opposition parties together, with an eye on the general elections a little over a year away. A dinner hosted by the UPA chairperson on Tuesday brought together 20 parties, including the Congress, as leaders of state-level political opponents like the Left and Trinamool Congress, SP and BSP, dined together.
The JD(S), which will be fighting against the Congress in the coming Karnataka assembly elections; the BSP, which stayed away from a couple of Opposition gatherings in the recent past; and the CPI(M), which is opposed to any electoral understanding with the Congress, were all present.
The meeting comes at a time when some regional parties like the Trinamool Congress and Telangana Rashtra Samithi have floated the idea of a federal front. The idea of a non-BJP, non-Congress front has found some traction. And NCP supremo Sharad Pawar has been sending out mixed signals.
Apart from Pawar, the other leaders who attended the dinner were SP’s Ram Gopal Yadav, RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav and Misa Bharti, National Conference’s Omar Abdullah, DMK’s Kanimozhi, BSP’s Satish Chandra Misra, Trinamool Congress’s Sudip Bandopadhyay, CPI(M)’s T K Rangarajan, CPI’s S Sudhakar Reddy and D Raja, JVM’s Babulal Marandi, RLD’s Ajit Singh, JMM’s Hemant Soren, and Sharad Yadav.
Also present were RSP’s N K Premachandran, AIUDF’s Baddruddin Ajmal, Muslim League’s P K Kunhalikutty, Kerala Congress’s Jose K Mani, Hindustani Awam Morcha’s Jitan Ram Manjhi and JD(S)’s Kupendra Reddy. Congress leaders said the continuing stalemate in Parliament and the government’s “obstinate approach” came up for informal discussion. Congress president Rahul Gandhi, and the party’s leaders in Parliament, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Mallikarjun Kharge, represented the party.
“Fabulous dinner tonight, hosted by UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi Ji. An opportunity for leaders from different political parties to meet and bond, informally. Much political talk but much more important — tremendous positive energy, warmth and genuine affection,” Rahul tweeted.
Fabulous dinner tonight, hosted by UPA Chairperson, Sonia Gandhi Ji. An opportunity for leaders from different political parties to meet and bond, informally.
Much political talk but much more important – tremendous positive energy, warmth and genuine affection. pic.twitter.com/IxaAm7UPoI
— Office of RG (@OfficeOfRG) March 13, 2018
CPI’s Reddy pointed out that the meeting came against the backdrop of the talk of a non-Congress, non-BJP front. “It is more of a mobilisation… that so many people are ready to be in the fight against the BJP. There was some talk of a third front. The purpose, I think, was also to clarify. Maybe, that one of the reasons… whether they are in this front, or in the so-called non-Congress, non-BJP front… Maybe there will be some discussions and meetings in the later stages,” he told The Indian Express.
Congress communication department head Randeep Surjewala said the dinner was all about amity and friendship. “The Congress believes that when the government tries to erect walls, we will clear a path for friendship and will walk together cordially. Politics was not on the dinner table… There will be, of course, some discussion on the steps needed to be taken giving relief to the farmers, youth and poor… As also how to fix accountability of the government in Parliament… The government was not allowing Parliament to function. It is obvious that leaders of various parties, who wanted to raise issues in national interest, would get together to discuss the current political situation,” he said.
“It was a cordial gathering of all the Opposition parties. I think it was a good sign for having a unified Opposition in the future. It was a feel-good factor for a unified Opposition in the future,” Premachandran told The Indian Express.