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Saturday , August 11 , 2012
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First table but not the last

- President’s dinner for Sonia; other guests on cards

New Delhi, Aug. 10: President Pranab Mukherjee hosted a dinner on Tuesday night for Sonia Gandhi and her family, generating curiosity in political circles but Congress leaders described the occasion as purely social courtesy.

The President’s office refused to entertain questions as such gatherings are not part of the official agenda. A source in Rashtrapati Bhavan, however, indicated that Mukherjee was planning to invite Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife soon, followed by the Vice-President, the leader of the Opposition in both Houses of Parliament and Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar.

The Rashtrapati Bhavan secretariat has uploaded over 60 photographs of dignitaries who called on Mukherjee in this short span but the gallery does not feature Sonia as the dinner was non-official. “We are not aware of non-official, personal visits,” a Rashtrapati Bhavan official said.

Sonia was accompanied by Rahul, Priyanka, Robert Vadra and their two children. Mukherjee’s wife, his sons and their wives and his daughter were present at the dinner.

Political interpretations being attached to the dinner are expected to get diluted once Mukherjee invites leaders from other parties.

Several Congress leaders have called on Mukherjee since his elevation, probably because the party is in power and ministers deem it necessary to pay respects to the President. Many ministers, including P. Chidambaram, Sushil Kumar Shinde, Jaipal Reddy, C.P. Joshi, Mukul Wasnik, Charan Das Mahant and Rahul aide Jitendra Singh, have met him in the past few days.

Veteran Congress leader Karan Singh, Trinamul minister Sultan Ahmed and unique identity card project chief Nandan Nilekani have also paid him courtesy calls, reflecting the wide circle of acquaintances Mukherjee has built during his political career.

Sources revealed that Sonia’s political secretary Ahmed Patel has met him several times in Rashtrapati Bhavan. The sources said Patel, the key political manager of the Congress, would not have driven to Rashtrapati Bhavan at night to discuss the vagaries of weather.

Congress leaders said that although Presidents are supposed to be apolitical, somebody who was as political as Mukherjee cannot metamorphose into a different species all of a sudden.

In the past, persons holding constitutional offices have dabbled in the affairs of their parties; the active involvement of the late Bhairon Singh Shekhawat in the BJP’s politics in Rajasthan during his tenure as Vice-President was never a secret. Reports had once emerged about former President Pratibha Patil mounting sustained pressure on the Congress leadership to allot her son a ticket for the Maharashtra Assembly poll.

While many Congress leaders privately admit Mukherjee’s views on crucial national and international issues would carry significant weight, the bypoll to the Jangipur Lok Sabha election in Bengal will be the acid test for presidential aloofness in the near future.

Mukherjee’s son Abhijit has expressed his desire to contest from his father’s constituency. Bengal leaders privately say Sonia will not take the decision without ascertaining the veteran’s views.

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