The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Coalition focus for Sonia team

New Delhi, June 12: It may not truly be a Panchmarhi II when Sonia Gandhi and over 200 Congress leaders come together for a second brainstorming session in Shimla between July 7 and 9.

The Panchmarhi brainstorming session took place nearly five years ago after the Congress president assumed power in the backdrop of an uncertain future and the need to forge unity among workers. Following a few splits, the Congress was lacking in confidence and the leadership was banking on its rivals to give it an opening to bounce back, with Atal Bihari Vajpayee leading a shaky coalition.

While the Vajpayee government has survived to this day, albeit leading a second coalition since October 1999, the Congress’ coming session will look to next year’s general election, with the party spelling out its stand on major policy issues and charting broad poll strategies.

As a first step, Sonia is expected to set up several groups over the next few days to prepare discussion papers for the brainstorming session.

Unlike the last time, the Congress will go into the new session with strong self-belief that it can come back at the Centre next year.

But the self-belief is tempered with a tinge of political realism, which was not clearly evident in Panchmarhi. Although the Congress had acknowledged the importance of alliances with like-minded parties, the Panchmarhi declaration had asserted that the party would consider coalitions “only when absolutely necessary”.

The coming session, however, will take place when the leadership is already convinced about the necessity of forming a broad secular coalition to form the next government at the Centre. Indeed, Sonia admitted as much in Srinagar at the end of the Congress chief ministers’ conclave last month.

Sources said the coalition issue would be a prominent one this time. More so, given that nothing much has happened to realise the goal set at Panchmarhi to strengthen the Congress in the three weak states — Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Tamil Nadu.

The session is also expected to discuss issues like poverty and employment. It will be a sort of preliminary exercise for evolving the Congress manifesto for the parliamentary election as no AICC session is planned between now and the poll, they added.

The session is likely to give an opportunity to effect greater harmony within the party after senior leader Arjun Singh recently talked about growing groupism.

As the session’s priorities and the political contexts differ from that of the Panchmarhi session of 1998, Sonia had reasons not to favour Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh’s offer to host the next month’s session in Panchmarhi itself as Panchmarhi II.

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