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Crashing welcome to Sonia

New Delhi, May 17: Sonia Gandhi declined to accept the post of Prime Minister this evening, even writing a letter expressing regret, but relented after hours of persuasion by party leaders and key allies, helped along by Rahul and Priyanka, Congress sources said.

She is now expected to be sworn in as Prime Minister on Wednesday at the head of a coalition that has been christened the United Progressive Alliance.

“Congress president Sonia Gandhi is going to meet President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam tomorrow morning for consultations on government formation,” Manmohan Singh announced at her 10 Janpath residence. The President had sent her an invitation at 5 pm.

Next to him, colleague Pranab Mukherjee said: “So, there is no scope for any rumours.”

Laloo Prasad Yadav, an ally, said those people who had spread the rumour about idols of Lord Ganesh drinking milk across the country had got into the act again. CPI leader A.B. Bardhan echoed his words, blaming a TV channel, too.

Sonia herself had been expected to appear and clear the air, but she did not.

For close to three hours this evening, the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP), its allies and well-wishers suffered anxious moments as Sonia sent shock waves by insisting that she did not want to divide the polity. It was a reference to the BJP and Sangh parivar’s growing chorus about her foreign origin.

Sonia named Manmohan Singh as successor but he replied that he was “compelled” to discard the very idea. The Congress president argued that given the BJP’s opposition, she did not want to become a subject of controversy.

She said her long association with the Nehru-Gandhi family had moulded her to think of the larger national interest and nothing else.

Allies Laloo Prasad, M. Karunanidhi and Ram Vilas Paswan declared that her candidature was in the “national interest”.

By default, Sonia received the backing of the entire non-NDA political spectrum on the issue of her foreign origin.

Well-wishers like former Prime Minister V.P. Singh had earlier rushed to 10 Janpath, as had leaders of the allied parties and Left partners. Heated rounds of discussion followed — only senior leaders Manmohan Singh, Mukherjee, Arjun Singh, Natwar Singh, Ambika Soni and Ahmed Patel were privy to them.

Laloo Prasad said: “You are the Prime Minister of Hindustan and we all stand united behind your leadership.”

Rahul and Priyanka, too, chipped in, pleading with her not to give in. The foreign origin campaign, they said, had been rejected by the people in the elections.

Sources at 10 Janpath said Sonia began having second thoughts since morning. She discussed it first over breakfast with Rahul and by lunchtime, she had firmed up her mind.

Party MPs and AICC functionaries, who were busy ordering sherwanis and bandhgalas for the May 19 swearing-in, became suspicious when they received a call from 10 Janpath that a meeting of the CPP had been called at 6.30 pm.

The operative part said Sonia would address them. The call was unusual on several counts. There has never been a CPP meeting at Sonia’s residence. A CPP meeting had taken place just two days ago, so there was no reason to have another so soon.

Whispers became louder. Manmohan Singh, Mukherjee, Arjun Singh, Soni and Patel came down to 10 Janpath. Sonia was not in a mood to heed their advice while they were determined to persuade her.

As word got out to the allies, V.P. Singh came first, saying emotions have little role. But when he came out of 10 Janpath in his Safari, he had a long face.

While Sonia, AICC functionaries and the allies battled in the meeting room, Congress MPs waited on the neighbouring lawn in intense heat and humidity. Cold drinks and snacks were served but no one touched them. There were angry faces, tired faces, frustrated faces.

Renuka Chowdhury and Jayanti Natrajan were vocal: “She is our leader but we too have some right over her.” Salman Khursheed paced up and down, muttering how unethical it all was.

Congress MPs said they had made up their mind not to leave the premises till she agreed to lead the government.

At 8.30 pm, their prayers were answered when Manmohan Singh emerged with Mukherjee to announce that Sonia would go to Rashtrapati Bhavan to stake claim.

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