Congress president Rahul Gandhi has invited opposition leaders as also former president Pranab Mukherjee to an iftar party he is to host on Wednesday.
The move is as much a symbol of opposition unity, as it is an effort to showcase his party's commitment to secularism. Mukherjee has accepted the invite, said Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala.
The iftar comes on the heels of the Congress welcoming Mukherjee’s speech to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) cadres, and the united opposition's candidate, Rashtriya Lok Dal's Tabassum Hasan, winning in Kairana Lok Sabha by-polls. She is the first Muslim candidate to enter the current Lok Sabha from Uttar Pradesh.
This will be the first iftar party that Rahul will be hosting as the Congress president. The invites went out over the weekend. Several opposition leaders have conveyed their unavailability because of the short notice.
Some of the top leaders will not attend. Senior opposition leaders, like Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, have been unwilling to accept Rahul’s leadership of a united opposition. They have deputed their second rung leaders to represent the party since Rahul and not UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi is hosting the iftar. Lok Sabha member Dinesh Trivedi is likely to represent Trinamool.
Congress sources said invites have gone out to all opposition parties, other than Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party. Earlier, Congress sources had said that former president Mukherjee and former vice president M Hamid Ansari have not been invited since the two have occupied constitutional posts, and the iftar is primarily a political event. However, Surjewala said in the evening that the Congress president has invited Mukherjee and the former president accepted the invite.
While some in the Congress said Mukherjee’s visit to RSS headquarters on Thursday triggered Rahul’s plan to host the iftar, others pointed out that Mukherjee's presence at Wednesday's iftar would be the biggest proof that Rahul and him are on the same page. After initial criticism by its individual leaders, the Congress had welcomed Mukherjee’s speech at the RSS event. But it does not want to send out a message that the party, under its new president, is willing to sit on the same table as the RSS.
On Monday, addressing the Congress party’s OBC conclave at Talkatora Stadium here, Rahul persisted with his attack on not just Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah, but also RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat.
"Today, our nation has become slave to two-three leaders of the BJP and the RSS. The entire opposition is getting together in six months to a year and Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and Mohan Bhagwat will see the strength of India," he said at the event. "They will understand that India cannot be run by only three people. India will be run by people of the country," he said.
On Tuesday, Rahul is scheduled to be at the chief judicial magistrate court in Bhiwandi in Thane. The court is likely to record Gandhi’s statement. The case relates to Rahul’s speech at an election rally in Bhiwandi in March 2014, where he had allegedly said that “the RSS people had killed (Mahatma) Gandhi”.
For the iftar, Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav, Jayant Chaudhary of Rashtriya Lok Dal, Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Tejashwi Yadav and other opposition leaders have been invited.
Wednesday’s iftar party of Rahul has similarities to the one his mother Sonia Gandhi had hosted in November 2003, which was also skipped by several key opposition leaders of that time. That iftar had come weeks before the assembly polls in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
That iftar had underscored Sonia’s efforts at having opposition parties reach an understanding against the Atal Behari Vajpayee government at the Centre, and pre-poll alliances wherever possible.
The Congress and opposition parties are keen to ensure 'one-on-one fights against BJP-led NDA in at least 400 of the 543 Lok Sabha seats.