Leaders of 20 opposition political parties attended a dinner that United Progress Alliance head Sonia Gandhi hosted for them at her official residence on Tuesday evening.
Last week, Gandhi, longtime and former head of the Congress party, had said she was hosting the dinner for “like-minded parties” which needed to forget their rivalries to come together for the country's sake.
This dinner diplomacy came days before the Congress party's national plenary session, its first under new chief Rahul Gandhi, her son.
The dinner diplomacy was reminiscent of the lunch she had hosted for opposition leaders on February 5, 2004, after the Atal Behari Vajpayee government had cut short the duration of that Lok Sabha and announced early elections. Gandhi ndicated by hosting Tuesday’s dinner that she, not Rahul Gandhi, would lead the effort to build a broad unity of 'like-minded parties' for the 2019 Lok Sabha poll.
The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), led by Sharad Pawar, and Trinamool Congress, led by Mamata Banerjee, have not been amenable to play lieutenant to Rahul Gandhi in efforts to forge opposition unity.
Leaders of nearly all opposition parties attended, including the Janata Dal (S), the Congress’ rival in the coming Karnataka assembly poll. However, JD (S) chief Deve Gowda gave it a miss.
The Aam Aadmi Party, 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 T K Rangarajan, represented the CPI (M). The Revolutionary Socialist Party was represented by N K Premachandran and Communist Party of India by D Raja. All India United Democratic Front leader Badruddin Ajmal attended, as did the National Conference’s Omar Abdullah.
Uttar Pradesh arch-rivals Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, recently come together for two 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 was represented by Misa Bharti and Tejashwi Yadav. Sharad Yadav, preparing to launch a new party after having walked out of Janata Dal (U), was also there. Hindustan Awam Morcha’s Jitan Ram Manjhi, who recently quit the Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA to join the RJD-Congress alliance in Bihar, was present.
From Jharkhand, rivals Babulal Marandi of the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha and Hemant Soren of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha represented their respective parties. M K Kanimozhi represented the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Leaders of the Indian Union Muslim League and Kerala Congress also attended.
Congress leaders at the dinner, apart from Sonia Gandhi, were Rahul Gandhi, former prime minister Manmohan Singh, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Mallikarjun Kharge, Ahmed Patel, A K 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 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.
The Congress, he added, has ideological differences with several of the political parties invited for 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.