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With Sonia saying no, Manmohan is set to be Prime Minister

Harish Khare

Wednesday 19 May 2004, by KHARE*Harish

DRAMATIC TURN: Sonia Gandhi, after resisting enormous pressure from the Congress Parliamentary Party and the ranks, was authorised on Tuesday to take an "appropriate decision" on who should be the Prime Minister. Her choice is known to be Dr. Manmohan Singh.

NEW DELHI, MAY 18. Listening to her "inner voice," Sonia Gandhi today walked away from the job of prime minister by stepping down from the leadership of the Congress Parliamentary Party. She is expected to hand over the baton to Manmohan Singh.

All the allies in the United Progressive Alliance as well as the Left parties have been informally sounded out about Dr. Singh as the prime ministerial candidate and all of them have replied that they would accept the Congress party’s decision.

Ms. Gandhi announced her "I-will-not-be-your-prime minister" decision at a meeting of Congress MPs, former MPs and other leaders. She told the gathering in the Central Hall of Parliament as well as the nationwide audience that watched the proceedings on television that she never hankered after office and that her only aim was "to defend the secular foundation of our nation and the poor of our country." She stood her ground, despite emotional protests by new and old MPs.

After the two-and-a-half hour meeting, responding to a resolution asking her to reconsider her decision, she said: "Trust me and allow me to take my own decision."

The script that began yesterday was completed today. Yesterday, Ms. Gandhi’s script went awry when the allies vetoed her desire to step aside. However, late last night she had told her senior colleagues in no unmistakable words that her decision to decline the prime ministerial chair remained "unchanged."

It came to a standoff between the moral minority (consisting of Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka and one or two aides) and the political majority (consisting of the political bosses). In a last ditch effort to exert pressure on her, the party managers massed "crowds" outside 10 Janpath. But the moral minority prevailed.

Convinced that Ms. Gandhi would not go back on her decision, the party managers reluctantly began putting together the organisational act to carry out her desire. The "caucus" met this morning at the senior leader, Arjun Singh’s residence. Besides Mr. Singh, those who attended were Dr. Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, Ahmed Patel, M.L. Fotedar, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Natwar Singh. They farmed out assignments among themselves. Mr. Natwar Singh and Mr. Fotedar were entrusted with the task of conveying Ms. Gandhi’s decision to the regional parties, while Mr. Arjun Singh and Mr. Azad were asked to explain things to the Left parties. These interlocutors were told to tell the allies that Ms. Gandhi meant what she said.

That Ms. Gandhi was not going to stake her claim to form the government became somewhat discernible when the Rashtrapati Bhavan could not confirm when she was going to call on the President. It was only after noon that she travelled to the Rashtrapati Bhavan accompanied by Dr. Manmohan Singh.

After her meeting, she told the waiting newsmen that she had discussions with the President and that she would meet him again on Tuesday with "proper documentation." It was plain and clear that she had gone through the motion of keeping her appointment as per the President’s invitation, without sounding discourteous to the head of the republic. It was obvious that she had on purpose not carried with her the letters of support from the allies, which had been given to the Congress.

However, authoritative sources insisted that the President had not asked Ms. Gandhi for any kind of "clarification." It was also denied that the President had asked the Attorney-General to give a legal opinion on Ms. Gandhi’s citizenship status.

Interestingly, the Rashtrapati Bhavan deemed it proper to put out a press release, noting that Sushma Swaraj, Minister of Health and Family Welfare, had called on the President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, and "told him that she felt Ms. Gandhi should not be the Prime Minister of this country, because she was of foreign origin." A delegation of the "Rashtriya Swabhiman Aandolan," headed by the former BJP ideologue, K.N. Govindacharya, also called on the President and gave a representation pleading that "Ms. Sonia Gandhi should not be allowed to be sworn in as the Prime Minister." The press release further noted that "the President simply heard them."

This sentence of five words became necessary because the President’s saffron visitors gave the impression that Mr. Kalam had expressed some kind of empathy with their views. In fact, responsible and knowledgeable sources within the Congress were insistent that Ms. Gandhi’s decision had nothing to do with Ms. Sushma Swaraj’s views and that it was always on the cards, as she herself told the Central Hall congregation that "I was always certain that if ever I found myself in the position that I am in today, I would follow my own inner voice."

The Congress leaders say that her decision had enhanced her moral stature and she would now become the biggest source of strength to the Congress. The last word belonged to Jairam Ramesh: "A long line of renunciates have dotted India right from the days of Gautama Buddha to Mahatma Gandhi; and, Sonia Gandhi has now joined this pantheon."

See online : The Hindu

P.S.

in The Hindu, Wednesday, May 19, 2004.

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