Leaders of 20 opposition parties got together on Tuesday at a dinner hosted by United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi to explore the possibility of forging a broader unity among secular parties ahead of the 2019 general elections, an event the Congress said was meant to promote “amity and friendship”.
According to sources, leaders of Nationalist Congress Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Trinamool Congress, Dravida Munnetra Kazagham and Left parties attended the dinner among others.
Prominent leaders in attendance were Nationalist Congress Party’s Sharad Pawar, SP’s Ram Gopal Yadav, Bahujan Samaj Party’s Satish Chandra Mishra and former chief ministers Omar Abdullah, Babulal Marandi, Hemant Soren and Jitan Ram Manjhi, besides Janata Dal-United’s Sharad Yadav and RLD’s Ajit Singh.
The RJD was represented by two children of party chief Lalu Prasad -- former deputy chief minister Tejashwi Yadav and Misa Bharti, a Rajya Sabha MP.
The others present included TMC’s Sudip Bandyopadhyay, Communist Party of India’s D Raja and Mohammad Salim, DMK’s Kanimozhi, AIUDF’s Baddrauddin Ajmal and leaders of Kerala Congress, besides Kupender Reddy of the Janata Dal-Secular.
Sonia Gandhi, Congress president Rahul Gandhi, former prime minister Manmohan Singh, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Mallikarjun Kharge, Ahmed Patel, AK Antony and Randeep Surjewala were among the Congress leaders present.
“Fabulous dinner tonight, hosted by UPA Chairperson, Sonia Gandhi Ji. An opportunity for leaders from different political parties to meet and bond, informally,” Rahul Gandhi tweeted after the dinner.
“Much political talk but much more important - tremendous positive energy, warmth and genuine affection,” he wrote, and tagged a group photo of the attendees.
According to sources, leaders of Andhra Pradesh’s ruling Telugu Desam Party, which recently pulled out its ministers in the Modi government but continues to be a constituent of the NDA, the Biju Janata Dal, and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi were not invited. The BJD and the TRS rule Odisha and Telangana respectively.
Tejashwi Yadav and Sharad Yadav later told reporters it was the first step towards a comprehensive alliance of the 2019 elections. Asked if there was a consensus on Rahul Gandhi’s leadership of the probable opposition alliance, Tejashwi said, “The time has not yet come to decide on the prime ministerial candidate.”
While the NDA was “breaking apart”, opposition parties were getting together, he said apparently hinting at TDP pulling out of the Modi government.
The dinner was hosted at Sonia Gandhi’s 10, Janpath residence where the leaders discussed the possibility of opposition parties getting together on one platform to defeat the BJP in 2019 Lok Sabha elections, sources said.
Sonia Gandhi had earlier called for opposition unity, saying parties should set aside their minor differences to come together in the larger interest of keeping the BJP out of power.
Congress communications incharge Randeep Surjewala said the dinner was not organised for politics, but for amity and friendship among opposition parties.
He claimed at a time when the government was not allowing Parliament to function, it was obvious that leaders of various parties, who wanted to raise issues in national interest, would get together to discuss the current political situation.
“This dinner was not hosted for politics, but for amity and friendship. The intention is not political, but to hold discussions in family-like setting at a time when the nation is confronted with a number of issues and thousands of crores being taken out of the country,” Surjewala later told reporters.
He said opposition leaders got together to discuss issues in the national interest, create bonhomie in the opposition and exchange views.
He also accused the government of running away from debate on key issues such as banking frauds.
Though the Congress termed the dinner as a “non-political” event, it was loaded with political significance as it may set the tone for unity among secular parties to take on the BJP-led NDA in the 2019 general elections.
Left and TMC leaders who were present said it was certainly a “political dinner without political talks”.
“It was a political dinner. But there were no political talks. It was a show of strength by the non-BJP parties,” a Left leader said.
“It was a political dinner but there were no political talks. Sonia Gandhi asked me why Mamata Banerjee (West Bengal Chief Minister) didn’t come. I told her it was because of her prior commitments,” said TMC leader in the Lok Sabha Sudip Bandyopadhyay.