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Sonia fields team to bargain with allies

May 20: Congress chief Sonia Gandhi has formed a party panel to negotiate with allies following claims for key portfolios in the Manmohan Singh-led government, expected to assume office on Saturday.

Sonia’s move to ask senior colleagues Arjun Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, Ambika Soni and Ahmed Patel to talk with the allies came after tough bargaining by the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Nationalist Congress Party.

The task of the leaders, sources said, is to ensure that the party does not have to part with more than one of the four important portfolios — defence, home, finance and external affairs.

The Congress is willing to give only defence to the allies and NCP chief Sharad Pawar is said to be the choice. But Laloo Prasad Yadav, whose RJD has 21 MPs, reportedly wants the home portfolio for himself and another four to five berths for partymen.

Not sure whether the Congress would oblige, the former Bihar chief minister today raised doubts about his party’s participation in the government. His party’s parliamentary wing, which met in the capital during the day, authorised him to take an “appropriate” decision.

Sources said the RJD chief’s attitude prompted Arjun Singh to send M.. Fotedar for talks. But Laloo Prasad refused to talk to him, forcing Arjun Singh to rush to his residence with the general secretary in charge of Bihar, R.K. Dhawan.

The meeting appeared to have made no headway in hammering out a power-sharing formula, though Arjun Singh denied there was any problem. Acting tough, Laloo Prasad abruptly left for Patna in the afternoon. On arrival in Patna, he said: “This is to be a Congress-led ministry in which the Congress has only 145 MPs and the rest belong to allies. Congress cannot do anything on its own.”

But he insisted he was not bargaining for positions and only seeking a financial package for his state. He claimed he had no differences with Congress leaders over portfolios because “the issue has not been discussed”. “My enemies are spreading a rumour that I demanded the home portfolio or any other ministry,” the RJD chief said.

Laloo Prasad said he had made a “lot of promises” to the people of Bihar. “I have always blamed the Centre for doing injustice to Bihar. Now that a secular government is in office, I have to prove to the people that my promises are being fulfilled,” he said soon after landing in Patna.

Sources in the RJD did not rule out Laloo Prasad’s demand for key portfolios but said the party’s real worry was the coming Assembly election.

The NCP camp, too, is believed to have forwarded its wish-list, which the Congress leadership has found difficult to agree with. Pawar had initially eyed the post of deputy Prime Minister. That no longer seems to be the expectation as the NCP leader is tipped to get defence, a portfolio he held in the P.V. Narasimha Rao government.

The NCP, which has nine MPs, is also understood to have asked for another cabinet berth (for general secretary Praful Patel) and a junior minister’s berth. Sources said the Congress leadership is finding it difficult to accept the demands as they could create problems while dealing with the two larger allies — the RJD and the 16-member DMK.

Pranab and Ahmed Patel met Pawar at his residence this morning to work out a formula, but no agreement was reached. The result was Praful Patel chose to assert that his party, too, had not yet decided on participation as it had just received the invitation in this regard when Pranab and Ahmed Patel met Pawar.

The DMK is unlikely to pose any headache.

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