The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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A taste of shy PM & prawn
- Singh breaks bread and ice with Opposition

New Delhi, Jan. 2: The “shy” Prime Minister is coming out of his shell, and the proof is the jumbo prawns he put on the table today.

Aap kabhi hamein khilayiye, pilayiye (Call us over for a meal sometime),” Atal Bihari Vajpayee had joked when Manmohan Singh called on him on his birthday on December 25.

This afternoon, he was treated to lunch at the Prime Minister’s house. Also invited were his BJP colleagues L.K. Advani and Jaswant Singh, and Brajesh Mishra, who was the national security adviser when Vajpayee was Prime Minister.

The sight of his favourite jumbo prawns on the dining table would have made Vajpayee happy, but perhaps what made him happier was the talks that were also on the menu. The lunch meeting comes ahead of the Saarc summit India will host in April.

Vajpayee is “pained” that the Opposition is “not consulted” on important national issues, and had told Singh so on his birthday. Be it the negotiations with Pakistan or the Indo-US nuclear deal, he said, the Opposition wasn’t even being kept posted.

To this, the Prime Minister replied that Mishra was kept in the loop. Mishra, who was present on both occasions, suggested that Singh could officially ask the BJP leaders over for a discussion on foreign policy — he had told The Telegraph he was neither a BJP member nor the party’s point man on strategic affairs, and briefing him didn’t qualify as consulting the Opposition.

Then Vajpayee asked, why haven’t you invited me home for a meal'

Singh, who had taken a step to break the ice by driving down to his predecessor’s home on his 82nd birthday, was prompt to set up the lunch date.

If Vajpayee had his jumbo prawns, Advani had the South Indian vegetarian fare he likes. The BJP leaders also had external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee briefing them on the situation in the neighbourhood and relations with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

National security adviser M.K. Narayanan and foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon were present, too.

Vajpayee, as Prime Minister, would frequently invite then Opposition leaders Singh and Sonia Gandhi for talks. It was Sonia, invited to tea, who shaped India’s stand on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. As leader of the Opposition, she told Vajpayee there was no hurry for Delhi to sign the treaty when the US Senate was yet to endorse it, and he honoured her view.

Few of Vajpayee’s predecessors, however, shared his faith in consultation.

“Indira Gandhi had her advisers and the Opposition didn’t figure among them,” a senior official said. “During her last stint (1980-1984), there was open hostility between her and the Opposition. The memory of the Shah Commission and her humiliation (by the 1977-79 Janata Party regime) was still too fresh for her.”

Rajiv Gandhi was more open to suggestions but even for him, the post-Emergency wounds hadn’t healed fully. He did sometimes “mention” important decisions to the Opposition.

A senior bureaucrat recalled that Rajiv had invited the Opposition over before his Pakistan trip. “The decision to go had been taken, but Rajiv asked them, ‘Aapki kya rai hai (what’s your opinion)'’ But mostly, the Opposition had no clue what he was doing.”

Rao, though, liked to keep the show going, hosting the Opposition once in a while. “He sat and listened without saying a word and did exactly what he liked. Nobody trusted him just as he trusted nobody,” a senior official said.

But, a BJP leader argued: “In an age of multi-party governments, there is a need for more Opposition involvement.”

Arun Jaitley said the Opposition was suspicious of the ruling alliance’s strategies and motives. “Pervez Musharraf makes a four-point proposal on Kashmir. The PM welcomes it. Backdoor negotiations between PM’s special envoy Satinder Lambah and Pakistan national security adviser Tariq Aziz seem to be at a fairly advanced stage. The Opposition has absolutely no idea.”

Musharraf had ruled out independence for Jammu and Kashmir, and offered to forfeit Pakistani claims on the state in the event of a final settlement between India and Pakistan.

Echoing his colleague, Advani said: “I would like to warn the country that the UPA is planning to make a major surrender on Jammu and Kashmir. No one, and that includes the Opposition, has a clue.”

Maybe the lunch today would have taken care of that.

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