Around 9 pm on Thursday, one phone call reached over the vast divide that separated 7, Race Course Road and 10, Janpath, located just a few kilometres away from each other in the national capital. It was Prime Minister Narendra Modi inviting Congress president Sonia Gandhi for the first meeting between the two at the former’s residence on Friday evening.
What led to that meeting between the two bitter rivals was a combination of policy deadlock, realpolitik and personal compulsions, top BJP and Congress sources told The Indian Express. And while both sides tried to project the meeting to their advantage, everyone agreed that it marked a significant political turn for both leaders who have clashed repeatedly ever since they started targeting each other following the 2002 Gujarat riots.
“Lamba galana faida mate vada pradhane vichari ne sogathi mari che (keeping in mind a long-term advantage, the Prime Minister has played the great game). The decision to meet Congress president Sonia Gandhi was 100 per cent the Prime Minister’s move. But he had to convince himself first to get ready to meet her,” a source close to Modi told The Indian Express.
A senior Congress leader told this newspaper that Prime Minister Modi fixed the appointment “suddenly”. “The entire exercise to take us in confidence started only after the BJP’s defeat in Bihar. Before that, they were flying high. Now Modi is grounded and wants to do some good for the people. At the same time, we don’t want the media and the middle-class voters to think that the Congress was not helpful on issues of national interest,” he said.
BJP sources listed the parliament deadlock over the Goods and Services Tax bill, a key link in the government’s reform agenda, among the “many practical reasons” that led to “one of the most difficult decisions the Prime Minister has had to take”.
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Sources said that after the “disgraceful” Bihar defeat, Modi found that more than ever that he needed to change “the negative perception that his government is not delivering”. Then again, they said, Modi’s team has realised that time is running out with NDA is unlikely to get a majority in the Rajya Sabha any time in the near future.
“Modi’s supporters have repeatedly requested the government to deliver taking help of opposition parties leaving aside personal biases,” sources said. And that has forced Modi to “show flexibility”, they said.
On the other side, Congress sources said that by agreeing to the meeting, Sonia Gandhi is hoping to create an atmosphere of “less confrontation”, one that is conducive for the “smooth transfer of power” to her son Rahul Gandhi.
“Also, it is important that Rahul Gandhi gains acceptance among the youth and middle class. By meeting Modi and ensuring less rivalry inside Parliament, the Congress is sending a signal of their belief in positive politics,” said sources.
Sources said that the meeting signals a major shift for both leaders on a personal level, too. Incidentally, the first step to open communication channels “at the highest level” was taken during a personal moment, when Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley met Rahul Gandhi last week to invite him for his daughter’s wedding.
Since the 2002 riots and the criticism that followed, “Sonia-ben” has been the target of Modi’s politics, even in the Gujarat assembly elections. In 2010, this bitterness reached a climax when Modi, then the chief minister, was questioned by a Special Investigation Team (SIT) set up by the Supreme Court for his alleged role in the Gujarat riots.
“He blamed Sonia Gandhi and her coterie for his humiliation. But times are different now,” said sources.
The invitation, they said, also means that Modi has put aside his “basic instinct to absolutely oppose his political rivals publicly and privately”. Besides, they said, this reachout is the first indication that he has “reluctantly begun to accept the ways of running the government in Lutyen’s Delhi”, where leaders like P Chidambaram and Jaitley maintain a “working relationship” to resolve national issues, if needed.
There were also personal equations at play on the Congress side, with Sonia Gandhi having signalled often that the “arrogant” government should approach the Opposition for, as Rahul Gandhi put it, “conversation”.
The presence of Manmohan Singh at the meeting is also significant on a personal level because Modi is said to enjoy a “good chemistry” with the former prime minister.
In the final analysis, however, despite BJP sources claiming a “long-term” advantage from the meeting, there is little doubt that it was the Congress that found itself in a win-win situation.
For one, the party did not offer any significant commitment on the GST issue. Two, Rahul Gandhi, the party’s future, continued to maintain his distance from Modi and the government. Three, the meeting has completely demolished the theme of a “Congress-mukt Bharat” that Modi and BJP president Amit Shah had based their Lok Sabha campaign on.
And last, it signalled an open acknowledgement by the government of Congress’s potential and influence in the Rajya Sabha.
BJP sources, meanwhile, sought to project the meeting as a sign that the Prime Minister was playing a large-hearted statesman’s role. “This is the victory of Indian democracy because it shows that sheer numbers in Parliament alone is not everything,” said the source close to Modi.
And yet, for the common man watching the unprecedented scenes unfold on TV, this was the takeaway image: The leader of a majority government with over 40 months to go in power, and whose party currently has 280 seats in a 543-member Lok Sabha, requesting the cooperation of the president of a party with only 44 seats in the same House.
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