The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Sonia taps unity, Vajpayee feel-good
Samajwadi, Left on Cong menu

New Delhi, Feb. 5: Hoping to go beyond pre-poll alliances, the Congress aims to explore the possibility of reaching strategic understanding with “secular and progressive” Opposition parties to defeat the BJP-led NDA in the Lok Sabha polls.

Party chief Sonia Gandhi, who dubbed the NDA a “front for the BJP”, today secured the tentative endorsement of Opposition floor leaders in Parliament of her idea of maximising electoral cooperation at a lunch she hosted on the concluding day of the 13th Lok Sabha.

“I had called them (Opposition leaders) basically to thank them because we have been working together in the last five years. This is something which we will continue during the conduct of the next elections,” Sonia said.

While the lunch was not envisaged as an occasion for serious discussion, the attending leaders “decided to meet (again) to discuss political strategy for the elections”, said Congress spokesperson Satyabrata Chaturvedi.

Though it might not be possible to have complete pre-poll unity among the anti-NDA parties, efforts would be made to ensure how best the parties wedded to secularism could help defeat the BJP and its allies, said a Congress leader who attended the lunch.

The obvious reference, it appeared, was to the Left parties, the Janata Dal (Secular) and the Samajwadi Party with whom there is little possibility of entering into pre-poll alliances, though they too have professed commitment to defeat the NDA. Besides, the Congress and some other Opposition parties have always emphasised the desirability of bringing sworn rivals like the Samajwadi and the BSP together in Uttar Pradesh.

Notwithstanding the Congress leadership’s problems with sewing up crucial alliances, party chief spokesperson S. Jaipal Reddy said the lunch signalled a new beginning in efforts to consolidate the secular camp ahead of the polls. The attendance at the lunch provided a “definitive glimpse of the alternative secular forces”.

Prominent leaders like Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Laloo Prasad Yadav, Somnath Chatterjee of the CPM and Lok Janshakti Party leader Ram Vilas Paswan were enthusiastic about putting up a united secular front. “Our sitting around one table is ample proof of our unity and we will defeat the BJP-led NDA,” Laloo Prasad said. The leaders were one in ridiculing the NDA’s “feel good” propaganda blitz.

In all, leaders of 13 parties attended Sonia’s lunch. They included former prime ministers Chandra Shekhar and H.D. Deve Gowda, Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, Bahujan Samaj Party leader Rashid Alvi, Samajwadi leader Amar Singh, DMK leader T.R. Baalu, Muslim League MP G.M. Banatwala, leaders of the Republican Party of India factions, Ramdas Athavale, R.S. Gavai and Prakash Ambedkar, CPI leader Ajay Chakravarty and Amar Roy Pradhan of the Forward Bloc.

In the morning, at a farewell meeting of Congress parliamentarians, Sonia said the party was negotiating alliances in different states on the basis of “convergence of policies and programmes”. As part of the poll preparations, the leadership was also in the process of identifying party candidates and finalising the manifesto.

The Congress chief exhorted the MPs to forge cohesion in the party, subjugate their personal aims to the larger cause of the party and ensure that the party returned to the 14th Lok Sabha with enhanced numbers.

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