The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Sonia, Pawar talk sweet after tea

New Delhi, Jan. 15: Sonia Gandhi and Sharad Pawar this evening stirred the brew for an alliance and sunk a five-year acrimony over tea, appearing before the media later wearing a smile and promising an alternative to the ruling combine.

Asked if it was a successful meeting, the Congress president said: “Yes. I think it was successful.”

Pawar said the meeting was “good and I am happy”.

The Maharashtra leader had left the Congress, along with P.A. Sangma, in 1999 over Sonia’s “foreign origin”, which he said today was not relevant at this point of time.

“That issue is not there. We are discussing an alternative to the NDA government,” Pawar said. “One month back I had said that this particular subject we are not going to raise at this juncture.”

“There are certain issues for any political party. But when it decides to sit together (with other parties), certain things have to be kept out.”

The meeting with Sonia came off after Pawar briefly resumed his on-and-off flirting with the BJP that now appears to have been a fruitless exercise.

BJP strategists, as high up as .K. Advani, had tried to prevent a Sonia-Pawar alliance.

It appears that the pressure on Pawar from the rank and file of his Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra for an alliance with the Congress was too strong. A meeting of the party’s national executive yesterday authorised Pawar to start talks with like-minded forces.

Sangma and Chhattisgarh leader V.C. Shukla, who left the Congress later to join Pawar, opposed the Congress alliance but their voices were drowned in the overwhelming view in favour of one.

It is possible that Sangma and Shukla may leave the party. Sangma told PTI in Guwahati: “Sonia Gandhi started her political career with a cup of tea (hosted by Subramanian Swamy and attended by Jayalalithaa in March 1999 to topple the Vajpayee government, which happened, but the Congress could not provide an alternative) and has chosen to end her political career with another cup of tea (today).”

Sonia and Pawar seemed to have hit it off well at their first one-to-one that lasted nearly an hour, starting at 7.15 pm, instead of the original 5 pm as the Congress president returned to Delhi late after addressing a rally at Bhatinda in Punjab.

“The process has begun,” Pawar, flanked by Sonia, said.

“The process has started to fight the elections together. That can be a possibility.”

“We had a long discussion on the prospects of the two parties working together in the elections so that all like-minded parties defeat the BJP-led government,” Sonia added. She parried a question on whether Pawar’s return to the Congress figured in the talks. “You leave that (for) now.”

Asked if seat-sharing had been on the agenda, Pawar said: “It was a pre-poll meeting to discuss the possibility of providing a viable alternative to the NDA government.”

The ice between the two that even the local-level alliance in Maharashtra, where the two parties rule in a coalition, could not break melted after Sonia said a fortnight ago that she would herself talk to Pawar as part of her exercise to form a front to defeat the BJP. She followed it up by phoning Pawar on Tuesday night and he promptly invited her for tea.

After the debacle in the last Assembly polls, for the first time Sonia has embraced the task of forming a coalition seriously. In the morning, she visited BSP leader Mayavati to greet her on her birthday and called DMK leader M. Karunanidhi to reinforce the freshly-forged alliance.

The Sonia-Pawar bonhomie may provoke Sangma to strengthen his recently-floated Northeastern People’s Forum and support the NDA. As for Shukla, who is being wooed by the BJP, the Congress has kept a line of communication open.

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