Congress-Samajwadi betrothal - a romance that began last summer

July 8th, 2008 - 4:16 pm ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Manmohan Singh

New Delhi, July 8 (IANS) The love affair between the Congress and the Samajwadi Party actually began in the torrid summer of 2007 after the Uttar Pradesh elections and was set for consummation without one of its key players today - Amar Singh. What began as stray feelers, conveyed through power brokers in both camps, soon developed into concrete proposals by autumn when a message was conveyed from the Congress high command that the Samajwadi Party could even get seven ministerial berths in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government - but only if party general secretary Amar Singh was kept out.

A slighted Amar Singh, whose antipathy to Congress president Sonia Gandhi was well known, even offered to resign from the party if he was felt to be a hurdle in the way of a reborn ’secular’ alliance.

But the party rallied around him and the move was aborted.

And contrary to popular impression, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh played a key role in bringing together the once sworn antagonists with Sonia Gandhi taking a back seat — till the deal was finally sealed last week with party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and Amar Singh meeting her at her 10 Janpath residence.

In information pieced together from privileged sources in both camps, it is clear that contrary to being seen as strange bedfellows, the parties worked to a plan to be seen as natural partners — each to carve out a larger political space for itself with the other’s help.

There were several go-betweens - Rajiv Shukla (Congress), Saleem Sherwani (Samajwadi Party) and others — before the bigwigs took over.

At an iftar reception in New Delhi last year, Sonia Gandhi met some Samajwadi Party leaders, including Sherwani, and conveyed through him that the Congress was ready for a lasting political relationship - minus Amar Singh.

The proposal, conveyed to Mulayam Singh, was discussed in the highest party circles. But several of its leaders, including those not too well disposed towards the publicity-hogging Amar Singh, said while friendship with the Congress was desirable, it could not be Amar Singh’s cost.

Although the government proposal fell through then, the decision was taken at the highest levels of the Samajwadi Party forum that the future of the party lay with the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) — to check the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) onslaught.

And Amar Singh was directed to patch up with Sonia Gandhi.

Contacts were established with the Congress at several levels through Akhilesh Yadav (son of Mulayam Singh who built bridges with the Congress young MPs), Ram Gopal Yadav, Shahid Siddiqui and above all Amar Singh. And these were reciprocated by the Congress, an indication that the message had gone down from the leadership.

It was then that Amar Singh had his first serious meeting with Manmohan Singh to discuss the nuclear deal and understand its nuances and the government’s rationale for pushing it.

Ram Gopal Yadav spoke in the Lok Sabha on the benefits of nuclear energy and the need to look at the nuclear deal afresh, only to cause a media stir over the Samajwadi Party’s “sudden” change in tack. He further asked the prime minister to clarify the nation’s doubts on the issue.

Although Amar Singh subsequently spoke in the Rajya Sabha to dispel the impression that the Samajwadi Party had “changed its policy overnight”, he quietly kept meeting Congress leaders, including the prime minister, general secretary Digvijay Singh, Ahmed Patel and others.

Amar Singh’s father’s death provided another opportunity to take forward the blossoming relationship, with Rahul Gandhi writing to Amar Singh to express condolences and Amar Singh in turn calling him to thank him for his “thoughtful gesture”. This was followed by a meeting between them.

On his part, Amar Singh seemed to be sparing no effort to build bridges with Sonia Gandhi.

As contacts between the two sides became more frequent at various levels, a decision was taken in principle by the Samajwadi Party to support the nuclear deal.

Then came the anniversary dinner of the ruling UPA in May, a place reserved for Amar Singh at the head table with the prime minister, his late entry when the desserts were being served and both Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi had finished eating, Manmohan Singh walking over to Amar Singh’s table amid much media excitement and the usual quotable bytes from Amar Singh.

Shahid Siddiqui, another Samajwadi Party general secretary, meanwhile walked up to Sonia Gandhi to invite her for his son’s wedding reception, saying there was no political meaning to this invitation it was a purely personal gesture.

Why should not this gesture cement into a political one, Sonia Gandhi shot back good humouredly.

Siddiqui also invited Manmohan Singh, who asked the Samajwadi Party to look at the nuclear deal with an open mind, saying he personally was committed to it and had worked hard for its successful conclusion as this will bring India to the global high table.

Although both Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh could not come to the wedding reception of Siddiqui’s son at the India Habitat Centre, a number of Congress leaders showed up, leading to much tongue-wagging in media circles.

According to party insiders, some powerful industrialist friends of the Samajwadi Party too played a role in nudging it towards the Congress and in support of the nuclear deal that is expected to open up huge untapped possibilities in business in nuclear power and equipment.

The unstated bargain was perhaps a relief for Mulayam Singh whose legal troubles could open up a can of worms about his personal life that he wants to avoid.

And then whatever doubts Mulayam Singh had on the deal were cleared by former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, whose name Mulayam Singh had proposed for president during the National Democratic Alliance regime, and a man whom he greatly respects.

With the numbers thus sewed up, Manmohan Singh had no hesitation to leave for Japan where he virtually gave notice to the Left that they could go ahead with withdrawal of support if they wished to and that he was confident of the numbers to face parliament.

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