The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Sonia plans budget dinner

New Delhi, Feb. 5: Congress president Sonia Gandhi will unveil her post-Gujarat poll strategy at a dinner meeting with prominent Opposition leaders.

Looking to set up a platform of all like-minded Opposition parties, Sonia intends to hold the dinner before the budget session of Parliament begins on February 17. Since she will also be busy campaigning for the Congress in the four states that are scheduled to go to polls on February 26, there is a possibility that the dinner might take place just after the session starts, party sources said.

However, there is no uncertainty over the invitees. The spotlight will be on Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar and Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, both of whom have been at odds with Sonia for over three years but have dropped hints of warming up to her in recent weeks.

Sonia’s aides have already sounded those on the party chief’s guest list. The list includes leaders from all non-NDA Opposition parties except the ADMK. Formal invitations will be sent once the date is fixed, Sonia’s political secretary Ambika Soni said.

Discussions at the dinner will focus on political coordination among the Opposition parties during the budget session and key policy matters to deal a greater blow to the government.

The Congress leadership is examining three vital issues in this regard: the Ayodhya temple, disinvestment and the anti-terror law. The party believes that there is a scope for adopting a common approach on all these issues, though the Congress is yet to decide on its attack strategy.

The party had recently opposed the move to disinvest HPCL and BPCL. The pro-reform sections within the party are believed to be more circumspect. They are of the view that the Congress should rather question the timing of disinvestment. For instance, they hold that while disinvestment of several ITDC hotels was in order, the government chose the wrong time to go about it — when the tourism sector was passing through a lean phase.

Apart from seeking Opposition unity inside Parliament, sources say, Sonia will also urge the parties to adopt a common strategy outside — on the real political battlefield.

Some spadework has been done in Maharashtra to get the Congress closer to Pawar’s NCP with the change of leadership of the Democratic Front ministry in the state. With her Sunday meeting with Mulayam, Sonia also signalled her readiness to bury the hatchet and open a new chapter of cooperation. Ahead of the dinner, Mulayam has an opportunity to send the right message across to Sonia by offering an understanding on the twin bypolls in Uttar Pradesh.

Sonia hopes Mulayam will back the Congress nominee in the Gauriganj Assembly seat in her Amethi parliamentary constituency in return for her party’s support for his nominee in Haidergarh.

The Congress is contemplating not to field its nominee in Haidergarh as a “unilateral positive gesture” even if Mulayam’s candidate remains in the fray in Gauriganj.

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