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Cong can’t swallow PM lunch

New Delhi, Oct. 7: The Congress today sought to kick up a row over Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s lunch for President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and other dignitaries on grounds that it had objections to the “venue” and not “menu”.

Congress spokesman Jaipal Reddy claimed that the President had no option but to accept Vajpayee’s invitation to break bread with him at the Prime Minister’s residence along with the Vice-President, the deputy Prime Minister and other senior government functionaries.

It was a breach of protocol and the President was “compelled” to attend it, Reddy said. Rashtrapati Bhavan, however, did not share Reddy’s perception, saying Kalam rather enjoyed yesterday’s meal of hot rasam, idli, sambhar, lemon rice and paneer dosa with chutney.

Sources said the Congress was upset with the Prime Minister for failing to invite the leader of the Opposition and AICC chief, Sonia Gandhi.

What perhaps added insult to the injury was the presence of Najma Heptullah and a formal invitation to former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao.

Rao, however, did not attend the lunch.

Congress sources said the leader of the Opposition should not have been left out if the idea behind the lunch was to organise a gathering of important people before Vajpayee’s tour of Cyprus, Denmark and the United Kingdom. Among those present on the occasion were the Vice-President, the defence minister, the finance minister, the external affairs minister and the deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, who also holds the charge of the Indian Council of Cultural Research, Najma Heptullah.

Vajpayee had also invited several former Presidents and all former Prime Ministers. “The gathering was such that Sonia Gandhi ought to have been invited,” a senior Congress functionary said, pointing out that there was a deliberate “design” to keep Sonia out.

Reddy had a tough time answering questions from reporters. He first said it was not “proper” on Vajpayee’s part to have invited the President. But when asked if Kalam had the right to decline invitation, he said: “The President cannot do that.”

The Congress spokesman, however, covered some ground rubbishing the idea that the President went to Vajpayee’s Race Course Road residence against his wishes. “Do not put words in my mouth,” Reddy pleaded, before moving on to other subjects.

In private, Congress leaders claimed Kalam’s “inexperience” played a role because in normal protocol terms, it was the Prime Minister’s duty to call on the President. If there was an official banquet, it should have been held at an official venue such as Hyderabad House. They said, perhaps, Kalam did not get “proper advise”.

But the President seemed least upset with the “breach of protocol.” Rashtrapati Bhavan sources said Kalam enjoyed his food, engaged in small chat with Vajpayee, Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and the others.

“It never occurred to him that it will kick up a row,” a Rashtrapati Bhavan insider said, pointing out that Kalam, in any case, was a great believer in breaking protocol.

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