Last week, Sonia Gandhi had said she was hosting the dinner of “like-minded parties”, who needed to forget their rivalries on the ground to come together for the sake of the country.
Her dinner diplomacy was reminiscent of the lunch she had hosted for opposition leaders on February 5, 2004, after the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government had cut short the duration of that Lok Sabha and had announced early elections.
If she had reached out to the opposition parties in 2004, Sonia Gandhi indicated by hosting Tuesday’s dinner that she, and not Rahul Gandhi, would lead the efforts to build a broad unity of “like-minded parties” for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), led by Sharad Pawar, and Trinamool Congress, led by Mamata Banerjee, have not been amenable to playing lieutenants to Rahul Gandhi in efforts to forge opposition unity.
Leaders of nearly all opposition parties attended, including parties like the Janata Dal (Secular), which will be Congress’s rival in the forthcoming Karnataka assembly polls. However, JD (S) chief HD Deve Gowda gave it a miss.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the YSR Congress Party and Telangana Rashtra Samiti weren’t invited. Neither was the Biju Janata Dal represented. The TRS was an ally of the Congress in 2004, and is now its rival and the ruling party in Telangana.
The dinner also had leaders of archrivals Trinamool Congress and Communist Party of India (Marxist) breaking bread together. Lok Sabha member Sudip Bandyopadhyay represented the Trinamool, while his colleagues in Parliament, Mohammed Salim and TK Rangarajan, represented the CPI (M).
The Revolutionary Socialist Party was represented by NK Premchandran and Communist Party of India by D Raja. All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) leader Badruddin Ajmal also attended the dinner, as did National Conference’s Omar Abdullah.
Uttar Pradesh arch-rivals, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, who have recently come together for the Phulpur and Gorakhpur Lok Sabha by-elections, were represented by Ram Gopal Yadav and Satish Chandra Mishra, respectively. Rashtriya Lok Dal’s Ajit Singh was also present.
Pawar and Tariq Anwar represented the NCP. The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) was represented by Misa Bharti and Tejashwi Yadav. Sharad Yadav, who is preparing to launch a new party after having walked out of Janata Dal (United), was also there.
Hindustan Awam Morcha’s Jitan Ram Manjhi, who recently quit the BJP-led NDA to join the RJD-Congress alliance in Bihar, was present as well.
From Jharkhand, rivals Babulal Marandi of Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (JVM) and Hemant Soren of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha represented their respective parties.
MK Kanimozhi represented the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Leaders of Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and Kerala Congress also attended.
Congress leaders at the dinner, apart from Sonia Gandhi, were Congress president Rahul Gandhi, former prime minister Manmohan Singh, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Mallikarjun Kharge, Ahmed Patel, AK Antony and Randeep Singh Surjewala.
Surjewala said the dinner shouldn’t be seen as an effort to build an electoral alliance, but to discuss issues that face the nation and build a unity of purpose among opposition parties. “It is natural that the leaders will discuss the government’s disinterest in ensuring that Parliament functions, the agrarian crisis and joblessness of youth,” he said.
The Congress leader said the Congress has ideological differences with several of the political parties invited for the dinner, but the need of the hour was to demand accountability from the government on the issues facing the country, including on corruption and bank fraud.