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Four visits on first day

New Delhi, May 20: Not all roads led to 10 Janpath today. The Prime Minister-elect’s did — not once but four times.

Manmohan Singh called on Sonia Gandhi at 10 am, soon after addressing his first media conference since getting the appointment letter from the President.

He was again there at 1 pm to discuss probable names for the council of ministers. As Laloo Prasad Yadav and other allies began to drive a hard bargain, the Prime Minister-elect was back for another round of consultations at 5 pm at 10 Janpath, from where the crowds of supporters hoping to turn Sonia around had started thinning. Singh called it a day with another round of discussion at 8 pm.

Keen to pre-empt mischief-makers from construing the frequent visits as either Singh’s “over-dependence” on Sonia or undue interference from 10 Janpath, Congress leaders said the Prime Minister-elect is being given a “free hand” to pick his team of ministers.

During each visit, the protocol-conscious Sonia was there to receive him and see him off.

Sources said post-May 22, when Singh will formally be sworn in Prime Minister, the Congress president will set in place an “appropriate” arrangement so that he does not have to rush frequently to 10 Janpath.

In all likelihood, Sonia’s political secretary Ahmed Patel will be drafted into the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and party general secretary Ambika Soni will be given a ministerial assignment to act as an interface between the Congress and the government.

Congress leaders pointed out that the present balance of power is an extraordinary experiment never before seen in India. The closest parallel is the Chinese model where the communist party general secretary is traditionally placed on a pedestal higher than the head of the government.

Singh’s own stature and close association with Sonia are saving him from being seen in adverse light on account of the new arrangement.

First, for years, Singh has constantly been seen in the company of Sonia at all key party functions and high-profile occasions when foreign dignitaries called on her.

If his acumen in handling economic, social and diplomatic affairs makes him a valuable asset for the party, his personal qualities have ensured that he remains popular among all sections of the Congress.

Narasimha Rao loved to address him as “my finance minister”, protecting him whenever the economic reforms came under attack. The late Sitaram Kesri, who was dumped in 1998 as party president, rarely used to hide his bitterness but always made it clear that he never harboured a grudge against “Doctor Sahib”.

Under Sonia, Singh’s stature went up many notches when the party chief subtly told left-of-centre leaders like A.K. Antony, Arjun Singh, Vayalar Ravi and Priya Ranjan Das Munshi that in matters of economic policy, she would not brook a word against the father of reforms.

Citing such a record, Congress leaders discount the possibility of the office of the party president coming into confrontation with the Prime Minister.

Another element supporting their case is the conviction that the Sonia-Singh equation is diametrically different from the one she had with Rao, whose tenure as Prime Minister from 1991-96 saw an unusual undercurrent of tension between the government and the party. In fact, Rao often used Singh as his emissary to build bridges with Sonia.

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