The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Manmohan on Mission Mufti
- Cong last-ditch bid to turn around PDP

Oct. 19: Manmohan Singh is going on mission Kashmir — he will be in Srinagar tomorrow as a last-ditch bid by the Congress to turn Mufti Mohammad Sayeed around.

Sonia Gandhi wants Manmohan to get the People’s Democratic Party president, who wants to be chief minister himself, to support Ghulam Nabi Azad’s claim to the chair. Manmohan has been assigned the task in view of his stature and ability to sound reasonable, sources said.

Before taking any “extreme step”, the Congress president would like to exhaust all options, the sources underlined.

Privately, Congress leaders said the chief ministership issue was virtually non-negotiable. Having elected Azad as leader of the Congress legislature party, there was little chance now to prop up someone from the Valley. “We are against any regional divide. The ground realities and people’s aspirations have to be kept in mind,” a source close to Sonia said.

The PDP has taken the line that the chief minister should come from the Kashmir Valley, rather than Jammu, where Azad belongs.

If Manmohan’s mission fails, the Congress will have two options: it can either try to convince Governor Girish Saxena to let Azad form a minority government or, if he refuses, it can try to split the National Conference. The second option is so far unacceptable to Sonia, who feels this will not go down well with people and may harm the party’s prospects outside the state.

At present, the Congress has 20 MLAs and the support of 20 others, leaving it four short of the majority mark in the 87-member Assembly. State party sources said nine National Conference MLAs are willing to switch sides.

Besides holding talks with Mufti, Manmohan’s brief is to interact with leaders of all other non-National Conference and non-BJP parties, including Independents. He will submit a report to Sonia on the prospects of the Congress staking claim to form a “minority government” or weaning away a section of the National Conference.

The decision to send Manmohan was taken after Azad met Sonia this morning. The Congress president felt that as Mufti had declined to meet Azad, Manmohan should try to “consolidate the people’s mandate”.

Congress general secretary Ambika Soni said Manmohan was being sent to continue the process of consultations on formation of a coalition government. “Our main objective is to consolidate the mandate of the people. It should not be frittered away,” she said.

In Srinagar, Saxena underlined that there was no deadline for government-formation. “Doors for staking claim for government formation are open beyond October 21. But the party staking claim will have to satisfy me about its prospects of winning the vote of confidence,” he said.

Before Governor’s rule was imposed, Saxena had set 5 pm on October 21 as the deadline. “Now parties can come beyond October 21, but I wish the earlier the better,” he said.

Asked if the single largest party (in this case, the National Conference) would be invited first, Saxena said: “There is no constitutional provision or convention.… The only criteria is that the claim for formation of government should be credible, that could stand the majority test in the Assembly.”

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