Three key constituents of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) skipped a cabinet meeting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called in New Delhi on Friday evening, but said they were still part of the coalition.
Railways Minister Lalu Prasad, who had made it apparent that he would stay away, however, sent a representative. Steel Minister Ram Vilas Paswan clarified that he was staying away because of a prior commitment in Kolkata and that his Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) would remain within the Congress-led UPA.
Paswan, as also Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad, seem to be miffed over Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi's praise of their chief political rival Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, said sources.
However, Lalu Prasad, by asking Rural Development Minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh to represent him, indicated that the RJD was, for the moment, with the UPA.
The brief cabinet meeting, described as an administrative exercise, was perhaps the last of the present government and also the most thinly attended as the DMK and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) of Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar also stayed away.
The DMK, which had been miffed over UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi canceling a campaign trail visit to Tamil Nadu apparently over security concerns, sent a note saying it was preoccupied with the last phase of polling May 13.
On Friday, it was announced that Sonia Gandhi would address a rally in Chennai along with DMK supremo and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi.
At a press conference in the capital earlier this week, Rahul Gandhi had antagonised Lalu Prasad and Paswan by praising Janata Dal-United's (JD-U) chief minister Nitish Kumar's developmental work in Bihar.
"I am not saying that only Congress has leaders (who have done good work), there are leaders in the opposition.... Kumar, for example," Rahul Gandhi said.
In Patna, Lalu Prasad was closeted with key party workers after elections for the 40 Lok Sabha seats from Bihar ended Thursday.
"There is no programme to go to Delhi. He is busy meeting party workers," said his close aide.
"I have not skipped the cabinet meeting. I am not able to attend as a previous meeting was fixed in Kolkata," Paswan said in Kolkata, responding to speculation that he was skipping the cabinet meeting because he too was upset at Rahul Gandhi's praise of Nitish Kumar.
There are elections in Kolkata and Himachal Pradesh in the fifth round May 13, the steel minister pointed out.
"Morever, there was no agenda of my ministry (in the cabinet meeting)," he added.
"The Congress has already clarified what Rahulji wants to say. I am with the UPA. LJP, RJD are with the UPA. And we will remain with the UPA," Paswan asserted.
Pollsters expect Nitish Kumar to put up a good performance and with a splintered verdict looming ahead, the Congress has kept its doors open to potential new allies. It was perhaps for this reason Rahul Gandhi has reached out to not just the estranged Left but also rivals JD-U and the Telegu Desam Party.
The JD-U leader, however, has denied any move to join the UPA and asserted he would never leave the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance.
The cabinet meeting reviewed the position after the imposition of president's rule in Meghalaya and also examined certain international agreements, said Prithviraj Chavan, minister of state in the Prime Minister's Office.
"It is a routine cabinet meeting. One should not read much if they (Lalu and Paswan) do not come. I have not heard anything," Chavan told IANS.
The central government imposed president's rule in Meghalaya on March 19, a day after the state government narrowly survived a trust vote with the help of the assembly speaker.