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Is trouble brewing within the Congress?

By Renu Mittal
July 20, 2009 23:09 IST
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Is there trouble brewing in Sonia Gandhi's paradise? And is there a clash of personalities between the two top leaders in the government, an echo of which is being heard in the corridors of the United Progressive Alliance?

An indication of this came on Monday afternoon when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hosted a small and exclusive lunch for the visiting United States Secretary of State Hilary Clinton at his 7 Race Course Road residence.

And significantly absent at the lunch was the Union Finance Minister and the Number 2 in the government, Pranab Mukherjee, whom sources say was not invited for the lunch.

The PM appears to have set his own agenda as far as Hilary Clinton is concerned, and this was quite evident from his guest list.

While Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi was a prominent invitee, the Prime Minister picked up External Affairs Minister S M Krishna and the Union Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma, as the only two ministers who were invited for the lunch.

While Krishna is the current Minister for External Affairs, Anand Sharma was the minister of state, external affairs in the last regime. But by that reckoning, Pranab Mukherjee was the Union external affairs minister in the last government and who better than him could have provided continuity to the dialogue process.

But this is where the story becomes even more interesting. On the invitee list were the Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia (known to be the PM's closest confidant as well as a known pro-US economist ) and his wife Isher Judge Ahluwalia, also an economist.

Ignoring all senior ministers in his government, the Prime Minister picked Nandan Nikenkani, Kiran Shaw Majumdar and Ratan Tata as the other high profile guests at the lunch.

Also present was the National Security Advisor M K Narayanan, principal secretary T KA Nair, the Indian ambassador to the US Meera Shanker and the Foreign Secretary Shiv Shanker Menon.

While the menu at the lunch was pure Avadhi, which is what Hilary Clinton likes, Pranab Mukherjee was in his Parliament House office where he had lunch with Ahmed Patel, the powerful political secretary to the Congress President Sonia Gandhi, who is known to enjoy a close working relationship with Pranab Mukherjee. Later the two were joined by the Union Defence Minister A K Antony.

It is no secret that after the UPA victory, the Prime Minister wanted Montek Singh Ahluwalia as the Finance Minister,  but the move was scuttled by Sonia Gandhi who preferred an experienced, middle-of-the-road approach politician like Pranab Mukherjee to handle the country's finances.

The Prime Minister also wanted total control over external affairs ministry and in this he had his way as the party see-sawed with a number of names before they zeroed-in on S M Krishna.

Those close to 7 Race Course Road disclose that the decision to bring in three comparatively new and inexperienced ministers, Krishna, Shashi Tharoor and Parneet Kaur was deliberate and well thought out by the PM, as it gave Dr Singh along with the NSA, to run the foreign policy.

Which effectively what has been happening since the UPA government took charge with Krishna more and more looking like a tenant rather than a landlord in his own ministry.

The pro-active nature of the PM's role on Pakistan is an evidence of it.

The Congress party which for the first time refused to sing praises of the Prime Minister over his handling of Pakistan in the joint statement has now privately admitted that the inclusion of Baluchistan in the joint statement was a "blunder ", and could give Pakistan leverage which they could exploit in times to come.

A senior Congress leader said that tomorrow if anything happens in Baluchistan, Pakistan can always turn around and blame India or worse still, Pakistan can engineer a situation in Baluchistan and blame India for it to get the upper hand.

Sources in the Congress party admit that the situation in the second innings of Dr Manmohan Singh is qualitatively different from the first one.

Brushing aside the PMO penchant to accommodate bureaucrats in key positions, the Congress this time around has listened to its political voices by appointing senior Congress leaders as governors in the reshuffle which took place on Saturday.

There was a great deal of resentment last time around in the party, at the manner in which bureaucrats were being preferred to politicians.

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Renu Mittal