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Mufti plays on Cong nerves

New Delhi, Oct. 13: Sonia Gandhi tonight did not reject Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s claim to the chief minister’s post and sought the Congress MLAs’ view on the vexed issue on a day the veteran politician and People’s Democratic Party leader gave the Congress a torrid time.

The Vajpayee government also informed Sonia that it would keep a close watch on Kashmir developments to safeguard “national interests”.

The scene has now shifted to Srinagar where Congress MLAs will meet tomorrow.

Jammu and Kashmir Governor G.C. Saxena has called the three largest parties — the National Conference (NC), the Congress and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) — for consultations tomorrow.

The defeated NC sprang a surprise when it turned around from its earlier decision to sit in the opposition and said it could stake a claim, too, to forming the government.

Congress sources said Sonia and her advisors had not rejected Mufti’s claim, which in itself indicated that the dice was loaded in his favour.

Chief ministerial aspirant Ghulam Nabi Azad’s camp, however, said Sonia was buying time to stake a claim for her party. “We are keeping fingers crossed,” a close aide of Azad said.

The Congress also received suggestions from the Centre that it should not accept Mufti’s stand of offering unconditional talks to separatists and Pakistan, making it clear — if further clarity is needed — that every move she made would be keenly watched.

The veiled warning made Sonia even more cautious because any action or even word from her would have repercussions in the rest of India.

Reports of the NC developing some interest in government formation also made her task difficult. A close Sonia aide said: “Now it’s a race against time. Our local MLAs want a government headed by the Congress. The PDP wants to lead and any delay in decision making would help the NC. So we have decided to go by the ear. Let the MLAs from both sides thrash it out. Madam does not want to get the blame of imposing her choice,” he said.

Congress sources said right from the beginning Sonia did not have a “closed mind” on leadership, but had been facing internal pressures for crowning Azad. Throughout today she was warned against the dangers of failing to meet the aspirations of the MLAs.

Sensing this, Mufti played his cards deftly. He began the day with a charter of demands for the common minimum programme that would be the guiding principle for the coalition.

By evening it became clear that he would settle for nothing less than the chief minister’s post. As bargaining chips, some of the issues Mufti asked for inclusion in the programme were dismantling the Special Operation Group, the infamous counter-insurgency arm of police, probing charges against the NC and unconditional talks with separatists with the involvement of Pakistan.

All three are difficult for the Congress to agree to.

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