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What Sonia Gandhi's iftar party says about Indian politics

Jyoti Malhotra
Jyoti MalhotraJul 14, 2015 | 15:34

What Sonia Gandhi's iftar party says about Indian politics

At the iftar dinner thrown last night by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, the enormous Convention Hall at Delhi's Ashok hotel throbbed with the hum of gossip and the visible relief of having survived the worst year in recent political memory, as leaders of key Opposition parties happily tucked into chicken biriyani and fish fingers and paneer lathered with masala - and later, jalebi and phirni - as they sat around the several round tables scattered across the hall.

It was like being part of the ebb and swell of a small sea, in the middle of which sat Sonia Gandhi and next to her Bihar chief minister and Janata Dal (United) chief Nitish Kumar, who wore a skull cap in honour of the occasion but took it off once the food came. Trinamool Congress MP Derek O'Brien, representing his female boss Mamata Banerjee, sat on Sonia's other side, next to Nigerian high commissioner Sola Enikanolaiye.

You could argue that the big chiefs were all missing, save for Nitish Kumar, and that Sonia Gandhi was really presiding over a string of second-rung satraps. The Samajwadi Party didn't even bother to send a representative - perhaps it was busy suspending an IPS officer in Uttar Pradesh who had claimed that SP leader Mulayam Singh Yadav had threatened him - while the absence of the Left parties defied commonsense, considering CPM leader Sitaram Yechury and Mrs Gandhi have been fast friends since the first UPA government.

No matter. The bonhomie that lasted all evening was a remembrance of things past, of a time in the life of India - not only in Indian politics - when symbolism was as important as belief. It was once important to be seen alongside your neighbour-of-another-faith, to partake of the feasting if not the fasting.

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Sonia Gandhi, with Nitish Kumar, Sharad Pawar, Derek O' Brien, Nigerian high commissioner Sola Enikanolaiye, with others at the iftar party on July 13. [Photocredit: PTI]

Organised on the eve of the monsoon session of Parliament, Sonia's iftar was certainly intended to be a show of Opposition strength. That is expected to translate into the political version of the "chakka jam", meaning, the Congress-led Opposition will stall the Rajya Sabha in which it is in a majority, from Day One of session beginning July 21.

In effect, that means that Prime Minister Narendra Modi can more or less kiss his second generation of reforms goodbye. On the anvil are the Land Acquisition Bill (which is currently into its third ordinance), the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Bill and the Real Estate Bill. The BJP will hope to pass the last by wooing parts of the Opposition, like the TMC and the SP, as it only needs a simple majority to clear.

"Watch what we will do once Parliament starts," said Anand Sharma, Congress party leader in the Rajya Sabha and former junior external affairs minister. "The Modi government has insulted India with this so-called agreement with Pakistan in Ufa," he added, as he pulled Pakistan high commissioner to India Abdul Basit's arm, motioning him to sit down next to him.

The Congress knows that TMC leader Mamata Banerjee could support the government on the GST bill - after all, it has been bailed out by the Centre for a mere Rs 3400 crore, ostensibly to settle all those who will move to India from Bangladesh in the wake of the Land Boundary Agreement. But it is banking on the fact that Mamata's ideological flexibility will stop short of casting her vote in favour of the BJP's pet project, the Land bill.

So in the middle of the crush of journalists thrusting their visiting cards at Sonia - she collected them all in the palm of her hand - and sundry hangers-on wanting selfies with the Congress president, Derek said he was hungry. At which Sonia gestured with her hands, as if saying, oh lord, what can I do?

Just then the call for prayers was sounded and the excited undertow of voices fell by a few decibels. Prayers were offered in a corner of the large hall - among them the devout Ahmed Patel, party political secretary and Gandhi loyalist since the time of Indira Gandhi, Ghulam Nabi Azad, the senior Kashmiri leader from the Chenab valley, senior Karnataka leaders Jaffer Sharief and K Rehman Khan and Omar Abdullah, former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and National Conference leader. The simplicity of the unfolding tableau was a reminder of the united colours of India.

At the table on Sonia's left, meanwhile, former prime minister Manmohan Singh was keeping his counsel, speaking so softly that it was impossible to overhear. Perhaps he was talking about the most recent India-Pakistan encounter at Ufa? Next to him sat Kerala leader and ex-defence minister AK Antony - and later in the evening, the chair was taken by Afghanistan's dapper ambassador to India Shaida Abdali, when the talk definitely turned to the rise and rise of the Taliban - and next to him the never-say-die, three-time Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit, who sparkled in a green-and-yellow sari.

On Manmohan Singh's other side was RJD leader and former minister for company affairs Prem Gupta, representing the missing Lalu Yadav - who was missing because he and his progeny had been marching to the Raj Bhavan in Patna yesterday, seeking the release of the still-to-be-released caste data from the Socio-Economic Caste Census. Gupta stood up and folded his hands into a namaste when Rahul Gandhi turned up, the only one at the table to do so. Next to Gupta sat Satish Mishra of the Bahujan Samaj Party, quietly watching all the comings and goings with a distinct glint in his eye.

As for the table on Sonia's right, it seemed to be taken over by the younger lot of Opposition politicians: Kumari Selja (Congress), Kanimozhi (DMK), Rahul Gandhi (Congress) and Omar Abdullah (NC) sat in the shape of a crescent moon, with Rajiv Shukla in starched whites standing just-so behind Rahul so he was part of all the photos.  Oh yes, and Sharad Yadav of the JD(U), still quite young at heart.

Jairam Ramesh walked breezily by, seemingly comforted by the knowledge that he allegedly has Rahul's ear. NCP leader Praful Patel pumped the flesh. Prithviraj Chavan may have lost Maharashtra, but none of his spunk. Digvijaya Singh was eating his fish by himself. Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi insisted he was ready to take on the BJP in elections next year. And at one end of the room, far from the madding crowd, Janardhan Dwivedi and Motilal Vora were enjoying each other's company.

Ambika Soni, friend and Congressman of Sanjay Gandhi's era, looked lovely in a pink-and-white ensemble, but demurred about remaining in active politics. "I'm 72 and now want to retire!" she said. Margarent Alva, recently retired from governorship of Goa and Rajasthan and resplendent in a silver silk sari, refused to talk about her autobiography that she was writing - and Rupa was publishing.

Salman Khurshid, a top-earning lawyer and former foreign minister, had no such compunctions. His book was almost ready, he said, and it was called The Other Side of the Mountain, a story of the diminishing power of UPA-2. Khurshid had also made the TV news last evening by refusing to apologise for the Emergency. He repeated his refusal with gusto. "I refuse to say sorry for the Emergency. Tell me anyone in this room who has the courage to?" he asked.

That's how the evening went last evening. And now for the hard part - building the Congress party, brick by brick and district by district, so it can take on the BJP, at least in the states where India still lives. After the monsoon session of Parliament, lurks the Bihar elections. That will be the watershed moment for the Modi government.

Still, iftar 2015 was remarkable for the cheer and hope it elicited, compared to the rampaging depression barely a year ago. Certainly, what a difference a year can make in politics!  

Last updated: July 16, 2015 | 08:57
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