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At Sonia’s lunch, Cong savours idea of UPA
- PM courts Trinamul

New Delhi, July 18: The Congress today served up Sonia Gandhi’s lunch as a power statement to rub the message in that the idea of UPA is far more delectable than the coalition of the rival BJP.

Jubilant Congress leaders pointed out that two arch rivals — Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati — led the list of proposers for Hamid Ansari who filed his nomination for a fresh innings as Vice-President.

Among the other proposers were Sonia and Manmohan Singh who deployed his under-rated political skills again to charm Trinamul Congress guests at the table.

The Congress leaders underscored that the presence of Trinamul representatives at the lunch a day after Mamata Banerjee promised to support Pranab Mukherjee for President repaired the crack in the UPA big picture just in time before the big occasion meant to showcase solidarity for the candidate.

Although Trinamul MPs could not sign Ansari’s papers as they were readied before Mamata made up her mind, the Left seconded his candidature.

The Prime Minister, who played a key role in liaising with Mamata, surprised many at the lunch by asking the two Trinamul representatives, K.D. Singh and Sukhendu Sekhar Roy, to sit beside him at the high table.

Manmohan took care to praise Mamata’s leadership, particularly her handling of the Maoist problem and the implementation of welfare schemes in Jungle Mahal.

Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam, too, was given added importance by the Prime Minister while Sonia and Rahul sat with Sharad Pawar, Lalu Prasad and Mayawati’s representative, Satish Chandra Mishra. Senior leaders like Ahmed Patel, V. Narayanasamy, Shakeel Ahmed and Pawan Bansal took care of every important guest.

“This decisive victory (in marshalling support) in such a hostile political climate is no mean achievement. We presented much better candidates than the rivals and managed a wide support base and showed why Sonia is still considered the most powerful leader in the country. We not only have the ideological advantage in a secular polity, we also possess a large talent pool, the ability to absorb shocks, handle contradictions and make adjustments,” a senior AICC functionary said after the lunch.

Parliamentary affairs minister Pawan Bansal could not resist the temptation to boast that “the Congress managed contradictions” of the coalition era very effectively. He predicted that Mukherjee would get over 7.5 lakh of the 10.98 lakh votes and Ansari over 520 of the 790 votes.

Sonia has been meeting every Congress MP over the past two days and personally explaining to them, with the help of a dummy ballot paper, how to vote in the presidential poll tomorrow.

She used the occasion to pose for group photographs with MPs from every state and told them to be present at the lunch today. One of her aides saw in it a sign of “a relaxed leader after such a battering on a host of issues and several electoral debacles”.

Many Congress leaders admit that a crisis in these elections would have dealt a debilitating blow to the UPA. An impressive victory in the presidential polls, followed by a shuffle in the government and some tough reforms initiatives might enable the UPA to refurbish its image before the next election.

The government views this opening as the last opportunity and is planning to get cracking after the election for Vice-President on August 7. The monsoon session of Parliament has been summoned from August 8.

The presidential election will begin in assemblies and in Parliament tomorrow from 10am and close at 5pm. While 77 MPs, including 27 from Bengal, have sought permission to vote in states, eight MLAs from different states will vote in Parliament.

Room number 63 of Parliament has been turned into a polling booth. The MPs will have to show their identity cards before voting. The Election Commission has allowed all jailed MPs and MLAs to vote.

One election agent of both candidates will be allowed to remain inside the venue at a given time. While Mukherjee has authorised Bansal, Narayanasamy, Pabon Singh Ghatowar, Girija Vyas and an advocate Praveen Parikh to visit the polling booth, his rival P.A. Sangma has designated three persons, Bhartahari Mehtab, Ramesh Vaish and Satpal Jain.

Counting will take place in Parliament on July 22. While Delhi will send its ballot boxes tomorrow night itself, other states will do so by July 20 night.