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UPA II's dinner celebration lacked spice and meat

May 23, 2011 17:04 IST
Sonia Gandhi kept off the media, Rahul Gandhi was basking in his UP foray, while other Congressmen showed little exuberance when they were not sniping at each other. Sheela Bhatt reports on UPA II's dinner to mark two years in office

Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh's dinner on Sunday night at his residence to celebrate two years of his government's second stint in power turned out to be just a ritual.

The speeches by Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Dr Singh were predictable, except for the PM's slightly candid admission about "pervasive corruption".

Sonia Gandhi avoided the media while her son and general secretary Rahul Gandhi was busy receiving compliments from his party leaders for his adventure of sneaking into the twin village Bhatta-Parsaul in the wee hours to express solidarity with farmers who had suffered police atrocities.

Rahul spoke for a while with his friend and Mumbai South Member of Parliament Milind Deora and also chatted with Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee. Then, he quietly sat at the PM's table which had many Hyderabadi delicacies on the menu. CWC member Ambika Soni was sweetly forced by women journalists to request Sonia Gandhi to speak to the media, but Madame Gandhi politely declined, saying, "I will call them later."

CWC member Janardan Dwivedi gave a philosophical spin for the lack of enthusiasm among Congressmen. He said shallow fun and frolic and showbiz don't last long. Those who play a long innings underplay their qualities, always. 

The no-nonsense chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati, didn't send anyone to the dinner while her rival Mulayam Singh Yadav, another important player in the state, sent his party secretary.

DMK gets the hot seat

Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar sat with the PM and Rahul Gandhi at the high table while TR Baalu, the DMK's lone representative at the dinner, sat right next to Sonia Gandhi. Baalu, a hardcore politician, didn't budge even as reporters tried hard to crack him.

It's true the DMK needs the Congress more now that its has lost both power and pride in Tamil Nadu. But the DMK's support is no less important to the UPA because of the SP and BSP's exorbitant price in view of the looming UP elections.

Who will sat at whose table was predetermined, so Mamata Banerjee's colleague Sudip Bandyopadhyay was requested to move from Mrs Gandhi's table to Dr Singh's table. He quickly ran from one to the other.

The invitation for the dinner was not for the leaders but was sent to the respective parties who form the United Progressive Alliance.

Before the dinner came the news of the post-dinner scheduled meeting of the Cabinet Committee of Political Affairs to decide about the Karnataka crisis. Home Secretary GK Pillai, who was quizzed about it by the media, said for the governor to convene an assembly session he needs to get a response from the Centre to his letter.

A brilliant mind

National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon, seated in the last row on the green lawn, is the antithesis of the hawks of diplomacy. He can explain anything from China's all-out support to Pakistan or the troubled neighbour's enviable geo-strategic position to Hamid Karzai's equation with the US – all without injecting any emotion and, then, he can modestly shift the focus by saying if India has the resources then the sky is the limit to invest in African countries. Like many bureaucrats he opens up, but unlike most bureaucrats he is truly humble and unassuming, although he doesn't share any secrets. His on-the-record and off-the- record conversations are more or less similar. Too bad, for the journalists that is. 

Till this man continues to occupy one of the most significant positions in government, one can rest assured that India is not likely to budge in its continuous and highly delicate balancing act of keeping the US, China and Russia at a distance, giving India some advantage in a volatile world. At times he will falter, but he won't lose his cool, that's for sure.

Congress's Southside story

At the UPA dinner the Karnataka crisis was one of the newsy items for a chitchat. If not handled with prudence by the Congress party, it can turn into a lottery for the Bharatiya Janata Party. In spite of the BJP's weak case regarding allegations of corrupt practices, the Congress is not gaining the upper hand due to the brazen behaviour of Governor HR Bhardwaj. 

A senior journalist who has been covering the Congress since many decades, in fact, said, "I fail to understand why Sonia Gandhi and Rahul are over-attending to Uttar Pradesh. The record says that after 1984, UP has not been giving an overwhelming number of seats to the Congress. I think Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, collectively, are far more important than UP."

But it seems "out of the box" thinking is not on the mind of the Congress leadership, when so many issues have managed to gherao them.

Ajmal's wish for Rahul

The entire gamut of the Congress leadership was present at the dinner but except general secretary Digvijaya Singh, nobody was showing the exuberance of having been in power for seven years. Dr Singh was in high spirits, as usual, and in the good company of Ajmal Badruddin of Assam whose new party is also a UPA ally. The latter has a great rapport with the prime minister.

One could only think of Nitin Gadkari who has been checkmated by Singh who handled the recent Assam assembly election in a cold-blooded political coup. Gadkari was sure of winning in Assam through post-election hera pheri. At Sunday's dinner Ajmal wants to gift his company's attar, which has made him a millionaire, to Rahul Gandhi so that it can bring good luck and a bride in his life, he said. 

A potential T-Rex ahead

The pressure from Telangana leaders is increasing every day and Congress general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad was questioned about it by reporters throughout the dinner even as Chief Minister Kiran Reddy had nothing convincing to say on it. He seems to have been tamed further by circumstances.

On the lawns of the PM's house, many Congress leaders from Telangana region were openly claiming that Azad has already given a hint that a separate state of Telangana was possible and the party was seriously deliberating on it.

It's all about luck, silly!

UPA II's entry into its third year is fraught with tension because of the 2G spectrum scam, the stalling of Parliament over it, the forming of JPC, ruckus in the PAC and the high-profile arrests that have followed. The 2G spectrum issue is far from over. When asked a senior member of the PM's team what was the real reason behind the government losing its grip after winning its second term so convincingly in 2009, he asked, "What is the most important thing in politics?" I replied, "Perception." The highly intelligent man shot back, "No. It's Luck!"

Home Minister P Chidambaram has been rated as an efficient minister by a daily in a recent survey, but he will require good luck to keep himself out of the headlines for the wrong reasons.

On May 13 Subramanian Swamy filed a prayer before the Supreme Court in the ongoing 2G spectrum scam case. Now, the irrepressible Swamy's energy will be expended on pinning Chidambaram down for his alleged action or inaction in the case. It's largely a political issue of adopting a certain policy, but Swamy wants him to clarify his exact role.

He has written to the SC that 'the whole truth is that while it is true that the civil servants of the ministry of finance (that Chidambaram headed when the spectrum was allotted) did  put up a fight for an upward revision of the price till November 22, 2007, a strange silence descended thereafter in the finance ministry secretariat on the pricing issue.'

Swamy says, 'The final decision to fix an entry fee for a telecom licence, and the spectrum one-time charge, as well as spectrum usage charge, were jointly determined by the two ministries at the ministers' level.'

Swamy has written clearly that 'the Draft Report of the Public Accounts Committee has also come to the conclusion on the culpability of Mr Chidambaram in fixing a low entry fee and a zero spectrum price.  Hence, prima facie, it is obvious that if Mr Raja can be charged for causing loss to the exchequer, then Mr Chidambaram's culpability has to be investigated by the CBI without fear or favour.'

The knives are out, as always

The only silver lining to the dark clouds -- like Karnataka, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, intra-party rivalry and 2G spectrum scam -- is that Congressmen don't seem to be worried about the Opposition parties. Intra-party rivalries are no less bothersome than the national crisis the party faces. As the Cabinet reshuffle is scheduled for mid-June, the bitching and backbiting is reaching new levels.

At the PM's dinner a senior Maharashtrian leader told journalists, in an off the record chat, that Mamata Banerjee has dropped her claim on the railway ministry. That was spicy news for the media, all right. Then, he said, she was insisting on the rural development ministry, famous for its Rs 80,000 crore budget! The story was big but after a while the journos understood the layer within layers.

Currently, the rural development ministry is headed by Vilasrao Deshmukh and his rivals within the party are all set to throw him out of the ministry if they can. In their efforts, already, the missile has come from a former bureaucrat working with Deshmukh who has blamed him solely for the Adarsh Society scam.


At the exit end of the venue, when asked Lalu Prasad Yadav, who has lost power in Bihar and who is now an insignificant ally of the UPA, "What's your take on the government?" he gave his signature naughty look and was about to say something nasty, but instead said, "I won't tell you today. Aaj inka namak khaya hai!"
Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi