The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Sonia keeps options open on Srinagar

New Delhi, Oct. 12: Sonia Gandhi does not see a Congress-led government in Srinagar as inevitable. She has an “open mind” on the choice of chief minister because of the complex nature of the verdict and the larger issues involved.

The initial euphoria that the party was set to add another state to its tally of 14 has tempered, paving the way for a more “statesman-like” approach from the high command.

Sonia today invited chief ministerial aspirant Mufti Mohammad Sayeed as part of her efforts to stitch a coalition with the People’s Democratic Party. The Congress and the PDP together have 36 seats and need eight more to reach the mark in the 87-member Assembly.

Mufti later said it was an “exchange of views” where the leadership issue did not figure. However, informed sources from both sides said the issue remained “unresolved”.

“Mufti made a powerful and convincing case for the PDP to take the lead but, as head of the Congress, Sonia is under pressure to protect the party’s interests,” a close aide of Sonia said.

Sonia’s political secretary Ambika Soni said the Congress chief would meet potential allies like the Left, the Panthers Party and the Ladakh Regional Autonomy Council before taking a decision.

If most favour the PDP, Sonia would bring back Ghulam Nabi Azad as general secretary in the AICC and settle for the deputy chief minister’s post for Mangat Ram Sharma, a leader from Jammu. But if the dominant view favours the Congress, then Mufti’s daughter Mehbooba Mufti would be offered the post of deputy chief minister.

The prospect of Azad making a comeback at the Congress headquarters has rattled a section of party leaders in Delhi who now form part of the “coterie” around Sonia. These leaders, determined to keep Azad out of Delhi, want the Congress to bid for the chief minister’s post.

Sources said Mufti, during his 45-minute meeting with Sonia, made a strong case for representation from the Valley. The former Union home minister told her Kashmiris had great expectations after voting out the National Conference and underlined the primacy of the Valley in finding a peaceful solution to the Kashmir problem.

Mufti kept recalling his “long association” with Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi and how the two leaders had a dream of putting an end to the violence. He said at this advanced stage of life, he, too, wanted to contribute something for lasting peace. The hint was clear. Sonia heard him attentively but did not commit.

Earlier, on his arrival here from Srinagar, Mufti said chief ministership was a “non-issue”. A “strategy and a programme” would be evolved for forming a coalition government, he said. “The question of who will be the chief minister is a non-issue. There is no dearth of appropriate candidates as there are a galaxy of leaders in the Congress and the PDP.”

In Srinagar, his daughter Mehbooba said: “The few complications in cobbling together the coalition will hopefully be resolved within one or two days.” A source in the party said the PDP was likely to get the chief minister’s post.

Mufti, whose party has won 16 seats, said the chief minister would be decided through “mutual consultations”.

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