The Congress and various Opposition parties might be gearing up for 'Mission 2019' -- how to take on the Narendra Modi- and Amit Shah-led electoral juggernaut, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The leaders of 20 Opposition parties on Tuesday attended the dinner hosted by United Progress Alliance (UPA) Chairperson Sonia Gandhi at her official residence. The political leaders were reportedly there to explore the possibility of forging a broader alliance among secular parties ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Leaders of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Trinamool Congress, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), and Left parties, among others, attended the dinner, sources told news agencies. The dinner diplomacy was reminiscent of the lunch Sonia Gandhi had hosted for Opposition leaders on February 5, 2004, after the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led government had cut short the duration of that Lok Sabha.
The dinner took place against the backdrop of a standoff between the government and the Opposition in Parliament, which has seen continuous disruptions since the start of the second half of the Budget session on March 5.
How fruitful was the dinner diplomacy? At least according to Rahul Gandhi, the meeting was "fabulous". The Congress president said there was "much political talk" during the meeting, adding that the leaders reflected tremendous positive energy, warmth, and genuine affection.
However, not all of the country's political players were present at the dinner meeting. The Aam Aadmi Party, the YSR Congress Party, and Telangana Rashtra Samiti were not invited. The Biju Janata Dal was also not represented. The TRS was an ally of the Congress in 2004 and is now its rival and the ruling party in Telangana.
Besides Rahul Gandhi, former prime minister Manmohan Singh, Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad, and Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge, were among those present. Party leaders Ahmed Patel and A K Antony also attended the dinner.
Here are the top 10 developments regarding United Progress Alliance Chairperson Sonia Gandhi's dinner meeting and political outreach:
1) Sonia to lead the charge: By hosting Tuesday's dinner, Sonia Gandhi indicated that she, not Congress President Rahul Gandhi, would lead the effort to build a broad unity of 'like-minded parties' to take on Narendra Modi and the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
2) Sharad Pawar, Ram Gopal Yadav present at party: The prominent leaders in attendance were NCP's Sharad Pawar, SP's Ram Gopal Yadav, BSP's Satish Chandra Mishra and former chief ministers Omar Abdullah, Babulal Marandi, Hemant Soren and Jitan Ram Manjhi, besides JD(U)'s Sharad Yadav, and Rashtriya Lok Dal's (RLD's) Ajit Singh.
The RJD was represented by party chief Lalu Prasad's two children -- former deputy chief minister Tejashwi Yadav and Rajya Sabha MP Misa Bharti.
3) Leaders from the Left, South and Bengal also attended: It wasn't just leaders from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh who were in attendance. The other leaders present at the dinner included All India Trinamool Congress' (TMC's) Sudip Bandyopadhyay, Communist Party of India-Marxist's (CPI-M's) D Raja and Mohammad Salim, DMK's Kanimozhi, All India United Democratic Front's (AIUDF's) Baddrauddin Ajmal and leaders of Kerala Congress, besides Kupender Reddy of the Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S).
4) 'First step towards 2019 Lok Sabha polls alliance': Later, Tejashwi Yadav and Sharad Yadav told news agencies that Sonia Gandhi's dinner meeting was the first step towards a comprehensive alliance for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. However, when he was asked if there was a consensus on Rahul Gandhi's leadership of the probable Opposition alliance, Tejashwi said, "The time has not yet come to decide on the prime ministerial candidate."
Referring to the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) pulling out of the Modi government, Tejashwi said that Opposition parties were getting together while the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was "breaking apart".
The dinner diplomacy took place at Sonia Gandhi's 10, Janpath residence where the leaders discussed the possibility of Opposition parties getting together on one platform to defeat the Narendra Modi-led BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, according to sources.
5) Rahul says 'tremendous positive energy': Congress President Rahul Gandhi later said there was "much political talk" during the dinner meeting.
After the dinner meeting, Rahul Gandhi on Tuesday said that there was positive energy and genuine affection during dinner. Rahul took to Twitter and wrote: "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."
Fabulous dinner tonight, hosted by UPA Chairperson, Sonia Gandhi Ji. An opportunity for leaders from different political parties to meet and bond, informally.— Office of RG (@OfficeOfRG) March 13, 2018
Much political talk but much more important - tremendous positive energy, warmth and genuine affection. pic.twitter.com/IxaAm7UPoI
6) Sonia called meeting to 'build unity of purpose': Congress communications incharge Randeep Singh Surjewala, who was present at the event, said that the dinner shouldn't be seen as an effort to build an electoral alliance. Instead, according to Surjewala, Sonia Gandhi hosted the dinner to discuss issues that face the nation and to build unity of purpose. "It is natural that the leaders will discuss the government's disinterest in ensuring Parliament functions, the agrarian crisis and joblessness of youth," he said.
Surjewala added that the Congress has ideological differences with several of the political parties represented at the dinner. However, the need of the hour was to demand accountability from the government on issues facing the country, including on corruption and bank fraud, he said.
Leaders from a cross section of parties registered their presence at the dinner. pic.twitter.com/u3McC9TUer— Congress (@INCIndia) March 13, 2018
7) Leaders discussed how to fix Modi-led government's accountability: Surjewala told reporters that the leaders present at the dinner discussed ways to fix the Narendra Modi-led government's accountability in Parliament. He accused the government of running away from debate in Parliament on the Rs 127-billion Punjab National Bank fraud case and for also failing to tackle unemployment and problems of farmers.
"When the government does not have interest to run Parliament, then it is natural that leaders of Opposition parties, who are concerned about the problems faced by the people, will discuss the country's politics. There will be unofficial discussion on how to fix accountability of the government," he said.
8) 'Political dinner without political talks': Left and TMC leaders present at the dinner said that it was certainly a "political dinner without political talks". "It was a political dinner. But there were no political talks. It was a show of strength by the non-BJP parties," a Left leader told news agencies. "It was a political dinner but there were no political talks. Sonia Gandhi asked me why Mamata Banerjee (West Bengal Chief Minister) didn't come. I told her it was because of her prior commitments," said TMC leader in the Lok Sabha Sudip Bandyopadhyay.
9) Sharad Pawar to host Opposition meet by the end of March: The show of Opposition unity will not stop at Sonia Gandhi's dinner. Instead, it will continue at NCP chief Sharad Pawar's residence at the end of March, senior NCP leaders have said. Top NCP sources have said that Pawar has called a meet of all Opposition leaders, including the Congress, to discuss a strategy for the upcoming 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
NCP leader Praful Patel has already met Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata and invited her to attend the meet. After the meeting with Banerjee last week, Patel had told reporters that the idea of having a federal front in the future was discussed between them.
According to TMC sources, Banerjee, who was not able to attend Gandhi's dinner due to prior commitments, has confirmed her attendance at Pawar's meeting.
10) History repeats itself: Sonia Gandhi's 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.
With agency inputs