The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Dinner sets table for Sonia, Mufti
- Manmohan charm melts ice, thorny issue to be taken up at party chiefs’ meeting today

New Delhi, Oct. 25: The Congress and the People’s Democratic Party today inched closer to government formation in Jammu and Kashmir.

The two parties covered ground on how to start a dialogue with militants and issues linked to a minimum programme. But they left the crucial issue of chief ministership to be taken up at a meeting between Sonia Gandhi and Mufti Mohammad Sayeed tomorrow.

A source who attended today’s meeting at Manmohan Singh’s residence said: “In all probability, a coalition will be in place tomorrow. Both sides are now in the right frame of mind and keen to forge an alliance.”

He said that, unlike in the past, both sides were making “conscious efforts” to form a government.

Indications are that if the two sides arrive at a consensus on the minimum programme, the chief minister’s post will be rotated.

Officially, both sides remained tightlipped on the choice of chief minister. But sources said PDP vice-president and Mufti’s daughter Mehbooba Mufti could emerge as a dark horse.

In exchange, the PDP would dilute its stand on issues like disbanding the Special Operations Group and unconditional talks with Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir issue.

However, sources close to Congress aspirant Ghulam Nabi Azad maintained that he was in no mood to back down.

If Azad is persuaded to pave the way for Mehbooba, he will be rewarded with a Rajya Sabha berth and a post in the AICC secretariat. Mufti, too, is eyeing the Rajya Sabha.

Today’s negotiations began after considerable spadework. Mufti set the tone minutes after his arrival at the Delhi airport when he announced that there was a rift over chief ministership.

Mufti first spoke to Manmohan Singh and Arjun Singh and got in touch with the Congress president over phone. He, along with Mehbooba, gathered at Manmohan’s residence at 8 pm, had dinner and discussed the finer points of governance.

Sources said there was a marked shift in Mufti’s approach towards government formation. He kept underlining the need to protect national interest while the Congress stressed on the need to provide a healing touch.

The PDP viewed this as a sign of the Congress’ inclination towards giving importance to the Kashmir Valley.

In a significant twist, the Srinagar unit of the CPM, which is heading a block of eight Independents, said it had no preference for a Congress chief minister as long as a PDP-Congress coalition was in place. Only the Panther’s Party, which has four MLAs, is now insisting on a government headed by the Congress.

Manmohan Singh hosted a meal for Mufti, Mehbooba and senior PDP leader Muzzafar Baig. When Mufti praised the meal, Manmohan Singh said he would not have been as good a host as Mufti in Srinagar. Congress leaders seized the compliment to underline the growing proximity between the two parties.

Sonia today asked Arjun Singh to join the negotiations with Mufti. Arjun Singh was included to strengthen the political component in the crucial talks.

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