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Sonia to meet President on Tuesday morning

Belying rumours that she might opt out, Manmohan announced that Sonia would stake claim to form the government on Tuesday morning.

india Updated: May 18, 2004 00:54 IST
Vinod Sharma, Saroj Nagi and Anil Anand
Vinod Sharma, Saroj Nagi and Anil Anand
PTI
Hindustantimes

For several hours on Monday evening, the question of who India's next Prime Minister would be was thrown open once again by a combination of two factors. The first was the relatively well-known fact that Sonia Gandhi hadn't made up her mind on whether to take up the top job. The second was Indian politics' well-oiled rumour machine: it seized on the opportunity, threw up alternative names and predicted political drama of the kind never witnessed in India.

What happened was dramatic, but not quite what the rumour mill had predicted. Sonia Gandhi will meet President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam at 9 a.m. on Tuesday and stake claim to form the next government. The announcement was made by Manmohan Singh, who was, minutes before, tipped to be the next Prime Minister of India. She is likely be sworn in as Prime Minister on May 19.

Ever since leading the Congress to a stunning victory in the elections, Sonia had been in a dilemma on whether to take up the Prime Ministership. That she had the unflinching support of her own party was never in doubt, but when the time came to decide one way or the other, she had to consult the Congress' allies in the newly formed United Progressive Alliance.

Armed with an invitation from the President to stake claim to the new government, Sonia held her first meeting with the likes of Laloo Prasad Yadav, Sharad Pawar, Ramvilas Paswan, M. Karunanidhi and leaders from the Left early on Monday evening.

This meeting ended with the allies deciding they would accompany Sonia to Rashtrapati Bhawan as a show of strength.

The allies had barely left when the rumours started spreading. As Congress MPs waited on the lawns of 10 Janpath, waiting for word there was talk that Sonia had changed her mind.

At around 7.30 p.m., the allies were trooping into 10 Janpath once again. The rumours had spread far enough (not without the help of television channels) for former Prime Minister V.P. Singh to ask the CPI's A.B. Bardhan to rush to 10 Janpath to gather the facts. The CPI-M's Sitaram Yechury drove in with a worried Laloo Yadav.

It was this meeting that settled the matter. Sources at the meeting told the Hindustan Times she conveyed to them that they "may face andolans" over the issue of her foreign origin. That people may move court over it. That, in the end, she may prove to be a liability as leader of the coalition. All of this came in the backdrop of the churlish manner in which the BJP and its allies have reacted to her becoming Prime Minister: the NDA will boycott the swearing-in ceremony. As a concession to form, however, outgoing Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee will attend.

Sonia also told them, say sources, that she'd accomplished what she'd set out to do — oust the NDA — and that she had "limited use" for power.

The allies heard her out, but would have none it. Paswan made the point that Sonia wasn't just the leader of the Congress, but of the newly formed alliance as a whole. It was also decided that the allies would not accompany Sonia to Rashtrapati Bhawan — the President's invite was clearly for her only.

The leadership issue was settled, but some of the leaders who attended the meeting got the impression that a Congressman with Prime Ministerial ambitions and very good connections in the corporate world had been working on her not to accept the top job.

In order to ensure that every ally she would work with was committed to her leadership, the Congress president had kept her party's MPs waiting for nearly three hours for their scheduled tea meeting. When the decision was announced, it came as a relief to all of them. Ironically, it was Pranab Mukherjee, who might have been Prime Minister by default, who eventually put them at ease on the leadership issue: "There is no scope for any rumour,” said Mukherjee as the MPs celebrated.