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Since 1st March, 1999
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Sangma and Sharad spar over Sonia
- Foreign origin issue splits NCP leaders

New Delhi, Sept. 7: Strategy or growing signs of differences'

The issue of Sonia Gandhi’s “foreign origin” today had Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leaders Sharad Pawar and P.A. Sangma again speaking in different voices.

Unlike Sangma’s hard-hitting talk that the Congress president was not fit to become Prime Minister, NCP chief Pawar sought to underplay it, saying the time was not right to rake up the issue. “This is not the appropriate time to raise the foreign origin issue,” he said while inaugurating a two-day training camp of his party. “We will take it up when the time comes.”

But Sangma did not hesitate to contradict his leader. Speaking in Pawar’s presence, he echoed ADMK chief Jayalalithaa, saying there was a “crying need” for excluding persons of foreign origin from holding the office of Prime Minister and creating a consensus among like-minded parties. “There is need for sustained campaign for an appropriate legislation in terms of this philosophy,” he said.

Pawar did not agree with Sangma’s assessment. He said the NCP was more keen on the consolidation of secular forces at the national level. “The secular vote should not be divided in Gujarat. We are clear about this... But the Congress must not think it is the custodian of secularism…”

The difference in perception between the two leaders again indicated that all is not well within the group that broke away from the Congress on the foreign origin issue. Pawar seemed more inclined to cater to a section of the NCP, which is keen on maintaining “functional relations” with its parent organisation. The “Maharashtra school” within the NCP is even toying with the idea of coming together with the Congress to take on the BJP and the Shiv Sena.

Sangma represents another group, which sees the Sonia-led Congress as enemy No. 1. According to this group, as long as Sonia heads the Congress, the NCP should not think of any rapprochement.

Walking a tightrope, the party leadership is trying to keep a distance from both the BJP and the Congress, but has made it clear that as far as Gujarat is concerned, the NCP’s top priority is to ensure Narendra Modi’s defeat.

Pawar, however, resented the Congress’ move to burn effigies of Sangma and Jayalalithaa. “The Congress has changed a lot in the last 50 years from the days when Mahatma Gandhi had spoken of burning videshi (foreign) goods,” he said. “Today, Sangma’s effigy was burnt for talking about swadeshi.”

Asked if the NCP would move closer to the BJP or the Congress, he said: “It is the game of patience. Why should we choose now'” Pawar described the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime as “directionless”. He attacked its policies and accused it of being responsible for more corruption than ever.

Sangma wondered why the BJP was “rather silent” on the foreign origin issue. The former Speaker of the Lok Sabha then went on to explain the BJP’s “reluctance” and claimed it was suiting the party to have an “ineffective leader” of Opposition.

Tariq Anwar, the third-most important NCP leader, chose a “middle path”. He said Jayalalithaa’s remarks about the Congress chief showed that the issue was still relevant.

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