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The Rediff Special/ Sheela Bhatt
'We have done a lot, but miles to go'
May 23, 2008
He was alone at the dinner table laid out on the lawns of his home, looking around in what seemed like a bit of confusion. The prime minister's nameplate sporting the golden emblem of India was in place. Seated to his right would be Home Minister Shivraj Patil and on the left, Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar [Images]. The Samajwadi Party's Amar Singh was to sit opposite the prime minister. Dr Singh, as always unable to walk slowly, came down straight from the dais to the dinner table, looking around for Amar Singh, a new entrant to the UPA's high table.
For one full hour Amar Singh kept the Congress leaders waiting. However, the media had plenty of other news to report. In one corner was the party's future, Rahul Gandhi [Images], chatting with a journalist from the north-east about how he is changing the Youth Congress, hunting for new talent, and doing things differently. Journalists were amused no end when he said the Indian media prints whatever he shares with them. He does not mind talking to the media people but if the reporters want a long-term relationship with him then he or she should keep the talk "off the record"!
The entire Left leadership came in as soon as the official function to launch the government's report card was over. The Left parties, who are holding morchas against the government over price rise, tried to skip the celebrations offering Marxist veteran Harkishen Singh Surjeet's hospitalisation as excuse. But weakening Left influence over political developments -- greatly signified by Amar Singh's presence -- forced them to share in the five-star delicacies from different parts of India.
Being on Sonia's right side
Sonia Gandhi [Images], as always meticulously clad in ethnic sari and Western shoes, sat at the next table with CPI-M General Secretary Prakash Karat to her right. The way the Left leadership was present in full strength, it was obvious they want to be on the right side of her government.
Sitaram Yechuri, who was at Dr Singh's table, reiterated their politics while talking to rediff.com: "We are together to keep the BJP out."
But that must be just one of the reasons. As the Congress and Samajwadi Party come closer, the dream of having a stronger Third Front before the general election will have shattered, and that would decrease the Left's bargaining power before and after the election.
At Sonia's table were the CPI-M's Brinda Karat, the CPI's A B Bardhan, the recently snubbed Arjun Singh [Images], the DMK's tainted minister T R Baalu, and the RJD's Lalu Prasad Yadav. When rediff.com tried to talk to Karat, he said with a smile, "I am not going to say anything on the Indo-US nuclear deal before May 28." Sonia Gandhi didn't show any emotion when Karat gave importance to the crucial meeting between the Left and the government over the nuke deal.
Sonia was wary of so many eyes staring at her but she kept herself engaged by talking mainly with Brinda. Rather, it was other way round. The attractive and brainy Brinda, who always sports classic handloom saris and a red hot bindi, almost dominated the table while the media, kept at a distance, kept guessing what the two ladies were discussing.
Sonia may not have been as forthcoming as the prime minister but an expression of delight played on her face when she told reporters, "You know, we have done well in West Bengal's panchayat elections." No prizes for guesses who has done badly, of course. Even Pranab Mukherjee, freshly back from holding talks with the new dispensation in Pakistan, couldn't resist talking about Nandigram [Images] and the CPI-M's violence.
Food for thought
Journalists hovered around Dr Singh's and Sonia's tables where they were being served Tomato Coriander Shorba, Delhi Chaat, Avadhi (Lucknow) Kurma, Kurmuri Bhindi (okra dipped in gram flour and slightly fried), Goan Fish Curry, and Sambhar-Rice. Ever mindful, Sonia at one point told the journalists to eat instead of standing around her.
Jalebi was the preferred dessert at her table. In north India Jalebi connotes complexity of mind and Amar Singh's late entry to the high table was no less complex than the Jalebis of Uttar Pradesh. Our friend from the Uttar Pradesh Congress, within 30 minutes of Amar Singh's arrival, pointed out, "Did you see, Sonia Gandhi didn't say even hello to Amar Singh."
He was right. Dr Singh, who had finished his dinner by the time Amar Singh arrived, went out of his way to sit with Amar Singh at a table that also had Ajit Singh of the Rashtriya Lok Dal. Ajit Singh hates the Samajwadi Party with whom the Congress has started flirting anew, and has announced a state-level Third Front in Uttar Pradesh, distant from both the Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party. He also wants to divide UP further by creating a Harit Pradesh.
Ajit Singh's reservations are fit to be ignored at a time when the Congress is petrified of Mayawati's roar in the wild jungle of politics. Otherwise, before the next poll, Ajit Singh might be the only leader who will have a pre-poll alliance with the Congress in UP, said an office-bearer of (who else!) the Congress party.
The dinner was a scene to watch. Some two dozen journalists encircled Dr Singh and Amar Singh while Sonia Gandhi, Karat, Lalu Yadav and Brinda watched with discomfort the mad rush to get a byte out of Amar Singh. Dinner diplomacy was climaxing at the next table, and Sonia and the Karats appeared hardly able to bear the moment.
In the last four years bitter and sometimes dirty politics has been played between the Samajwadi Party and Congress, leading to exposure of the alleged 'unaccounted millions' of Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, but here was Amar Singh, shrewdly playing his part and thanking the Congress for giving him more importance than even the Left parties.
He mentioned Dr Singh, not Sonia Gandhi, in his first remarks explaining his presence at the dinner. He said, "It is a reinforcement of the old and warm rapport between me and the PM." Dr Singh was more than happy to respond: "Amar Singh and I have mutual respect. There is always scope for realignment of like-minded forces."
Mayawati was the preferred flavour last year at the same time. But neither she nor her MPs attended that function, and avoided it last night as well. But this time, they had bitter comments to make as the Congress is moving a few steps towards the Samajwadi Party, last night's dinner being the first political move by the Congress before the next Lok Sabha election.
Samajwadi Party leader Uday Pratap Singh told rediff.com, "If you ask me in terms of ideology the Congress and Samajwadi Party are the only two parties who are closer to Gandhi-ism. So our coming closer should not be surprising." The inference he wanted us to make was that Mayawati was following Ambedkar, not Gandhi.
Amar Singh put it succinctly: "It will not be prudent to say that the Samajwadi Party and Congress are friends. It will not be proper to say that we are enemies. Minimum political civility and minimum required communication is about to begin."
But he rushed to add, "It does not mean that we are supporting the price rise, inflation or the nuclear deal by attending this dinner."
Oil on troubled waters
Besides the new love affair between the Congress and Samajwadi Party, journalists were repeatedly asking Dr Singh, Petroleum Minister Murli Deora and Finance Minister P Chidambram about price rise, oil price and terrorism.
Dr Singh confused Deora no end when he said, "We will not allow oil companies to suffer losses." A little later, talking to another bunch of journalists, he said, "We will not hike oil prices."
When rediff.com asked Deora how that is possible, he had no answer. As if waiting for some magic to happen, the minister said, "We are finding a way out."
Deora was more concerned about a story flashed on television channels about petrol rationing. "It's rubbish, completely false!" he declared. "Such stories will encourage the hoarding of petrol and kerosene."
The government has already issued oil bonds and has collected more than Rs 30,000 crore, he said. The total debt burden of oil, gas, kerosene, petrol and diesel subsidies and other financial instruments will soon cross Rs 1.8 lakh crore. A disgruntled Cabinet minister from the Congress told rediff.com, "If the government thinks of collecting more money through oil bonds or plans further subsidising of oil, then our next generation will pay a heavy price. We will be dead but Mukesh Ambani who is earning Rs 2 crore a day will be earning Rs 8 crore a day, and the government will be paying interest on the bond which is helping players in the oil sector."
Dr Singh spoke a lot on high price, inflation and oil prices. His main arguments were that the government is doing everything to control prices. An upward pressure on prices since 2007 has been wholly on account of the steep increase in global commodity prices, especially oil and food prices. It has also affected inflation expectations, he said. He assured that the government was sensitive about it and as the monsoon arrives, prices will come down. During May and September the prices of a few things are always higher, he explained. He also said inflation is on the decline and he needed a little more time.
Relaxing a little, he said, "Today's rain is a good omen."
Deal ya no deal?
As argued umpteen times, the Indo-US nuclear deal is of no consequence in the messy world of poll politics. Neither Sonia nor Dr Singh mentioned the nuclear deal in their speech. But Amar Singh did say that if given new facts his party may change its opposition to the deal. Dr Singh said in response, "I welcome the broad national consensus over the issue."
On the issue of terrorism, Dr Singh, without elaborating, said the government has taken firm actions in managing internal security. When asked about illegal Bangladeshi migrants, he said, "Too much is being made about the issue." Home Minister Patil, who was sitting next to him, quoted the Foreigners Act and said due to its limitations, when someone is caught living illegally in India and if his/her country refuses to accept him/her, very little can be done except to restrict the person in their homes or in transit camps. Congress leaders present at the dinner seemed determined to play its age-old minority card with a vengeance in the coming polls, not caring for or fearing the BJP's charge of 'appeasement of Muslims'.
Sonia Gandhi rightly said the UPA's final year has started and "definitely the next year will be decisive".
Even we journalists wanted a break from price rise and terrorism, so we asked Dr Singh about the Indian Premier League [Images]. Giving a broad smile at hearing the unexpected question, Dr Singh said, "I am not a great fan of cricket."
Photographs: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images and PTI
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