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‘Third front’ on Patel lips

April 27: Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel today said the Congress had kept open the possibility of repeating its 1996 act of propping up a non-BJP government at the Centre.

Patel, who maintains a low profile despite his high standing in the party and is known to measure his words, told NDTV the Congress was prepared to “take” or “give” support to a “third front” depending on the poll results.

Making it clear that he was speaking “hypothetically”, Patel said the Congress was willing to team up with “like-minded parties” to keep “communal forces at bay”.

In the Congress hierarchy, Patel is deemed to figure just behind Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. His standing is considered equal to defence minister A.K. Antony’s and higher than those of P. Chidambaram, Digvijaya Singh and Sushil Kumar Shinde.

His remarks suggest that after the election results are announced, the Grand Old Party could tap regional groups such as the AIADMK, Samajwadi Party, Trinamul Congress, Janata Dal (United) and Biju Janata Dal.

Congress sources have said that if the BJP seat tally fails to cross 200, their party might encourage regional parties to form a “front”.

Following a “realistic” internal assessment that limits its own tally to 120 seats, the Congress has been debating whether to join such a non-BJP government or extend support from outside.

Highly placed sources have suggested that the Congress might even, for the first time in history, accept a non-Congress Prime Minister while joining the cabinet bargaining for the home and finance portfolios.

Patel’s remarks about backing a “third front” come after two other senior Congress leaders, Salman Khurshid and Digvijaya, have mentioned such a post-poll possibility.

Khurshid had said: “After the poll results, if necessary, the Congress could consider extending support even to a third front to form the government. Not only this, taking support from the third front could be considered, too.”

The Congress had propped up two United Front governments between 1996 and 1998 to keep the BJP out, and extended support to the Charan Singh and Chandra Shekhar administrations in the late 1970s and early 1990s, respectively. But all of these governments fell within a matter of months.

Patel, in his interview, contested the charge made by the former media adviser to the Prime Minister, Sanjaya Baru, that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) sought Sonia’s opinion before clearing key files.

Asked whether, as Sonia’s political secretary, he meddled in the government’s functioning, Patel said he would resign his Parliament seat if the charges were proved.

Patel, who acted as Sonia’s emissary to Manmohan, said: “I’m a member of the Congress core group; I’m witness to what happened. If any minister can say that any file was going to Mrs Gandhi, or through Mrs Gandhi, I will resign.”

He, however, added: “Sometimes, on policy-level matters, there is a Congress ideology (that) when a government takes a decision, the party will have its say.”

Baru has claimed in his controversial book that the liaison between Sonia and the PMO was Pulok Chatterjee, the principal secretary in the PMO. Baru suggests that Chatterjee was appointed at the behest of 10 Janpath.

Patel dismissed the claim. “The PM may have chosen him on merit, after seeing Pulok work with Mrs Gandhi,” he said.

He added that Sonia may have met Chatterjee “at social functions, but not to clear files”.

“Why don’t you see how the NDA government (of Atal Bihari Vajpayee) functioned? They had the RSS as an extra-constitutional authority,” Patel said.