Debating India

ELECTIONS 2004

President invites Sonia Gandhi

Harish Khare

Monday 17 May 2004, by KHARE*Harish

NEW DELHI, MAY 17. The President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, today invited Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party and of the newly-constituted United Progressive Alliance, "for discussions" on formation of the next government.

Two senior Congress leaders, Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee, announced that Ms. Gandhi would be meeting the President tomorrow morning. The announcement came amid speculation that Ms. Gandhi was inclined not to assume the prime ministerial mantle. Mr. Mukherjee noted that there was "no scope for any rumours now." She is expected to take oath on Wednesday (May 19).

Allies prevail

The allies vetoed Ms. Gandhi’s desire to nominate someone else from the Congress to become the next prime minister. The DMK president, M. Karunanidhi, took the lead and asserted that the DMK’s letter of support was for her and her only; this line was endorsed by Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party while Laloo Prasad Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal threatened to stage a `dharna’ outside 10 Janpath in case she declined to become the prime minister. The allies’ argument was that "we have the mandate, we have the numbers."

The entire Congress working committee (CWC) was opposed to the idea of Ms. Gandhi stepping aside, but the CWC members were unable to make her change her mind.

Ms. Gandhi was reported to be in a mood to do a "1991" when she declined the offer to become the Congress president after the assassination of her husband, Rajiv Gandhi. It is believed that some members of her family are not very enthusiastic about her taking over as Prime Minister. Some of the allies got the impression that her decision was an "emotional" response to the "vicious campaign" that the Sangh Parivar has launched against her. However, the collective voice of the allies prevailed over whatever reservations Ms. Gandhi had about becoming prime minister.

A Rashtrapati Bhavan press communiqu? on the invitation to Ms. Gandhi said: "According to the results of the 14th General Elections, the President noted that the Indian National Congress has emerged as the single largest party and that this party, in combination with its other pre-election allies, constituted the largest political formation in the House. The President, having noted that Shrimati Sonia Gandhi has been elected the Leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party, sent a letter at 5.00 p.m. today requesting her to meet him today evening or tomorrow at her convenience for discussions."

It was a day of drama, beginning with the turmoil in the stock exchanges and ending with the intense discussion within the Congress over Ms. Gandhi’s desire to step aside. In between, the BJP and its NDA allies announced their decision to boycott Ms. Gandhi’s swearing-in ceremony and the Left Front parties stated their unwillingness to join the government. Also, Amar Singh, general-secretary of the Samajwadi Party, and Ajit Singh of the Rashtriya Lok Dal, met the President and handed over letters of support for Ms. Gandhi.

Ms. Gandhi had two rounds of meetings with the leaders of various allied parties and later with the presidents of the parties. The first meeting was a sort of a damp squib as all that the allies heard was that a letter had been received from the President and that the question was whether she should go alone to meet him or with other leaders. After the puzzled leaders dispersed, they were called in again for a second round, this time confined only to party presidents. It was at the second meeting that Mr. Pranab Mukherjee admitted that "there is a crisis."

He sought their views on Ms. Gandhi’s expressed desire to make way for someone else to become the prime minister. The argument that won the day was that the Congress could not allow itself to be seen as having been cowed down by the NDA’s effort to rake up the "foreign origin" issue.

Later, talking to mediapersons, Mr. Laloo Yadav described all this talk of Ms. Gandhi wanting to quit as mere "rumours" and praised her for taking the allies into confidence at "each and every" step.

Earlier in the day, the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, Uma Bharti, and the Janata Party leader, Subramanian Swamy, met the President separately to express their misgivings about Ms. Gandhi’s qualifications to become the prime minister on account of her foreign origin.

See online : The Hindu

P.S.

in The Hindu, Monday, May 17, 2004.

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