Sonia’s successful Iftar party
Did the “Iftar diplomac”’ of the Congress President Sonia Gandhi this week succeed? It is too early to predict. While her supporters claim the glass was half full, her critics say it was half empty, going by the presence and absence of the top leaders at the party. But it is behind the scene developments that matter and it is a developing story.
The high profile event on Monday attracted media as well as the attention of the political parties. The huge spread at the Ashok hotel convention hall for the Iftar had all the making of a grand party and there was an unmistakable political flavor of the UPA hey days.
Ironically, Iftar parties are no longer a celebration of the end of Ramzan’s fast as they have become the biggest political get-togethers in the capital. Almost all parties use this Iftar card to show their political clout. The attendance at their Iftars has become the barometer to gauge their political prowess.
The politics of Iftar has a long history in India. The tradition began with the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. His successor Lal Bahadur Shastri did not continue this practice. The beginning of state sponsored Iftar began in 1974, when H.N. Bahuguna, as Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister, hosted Iftar assiduously courting the Muslim vote bank. Bahuguna’s success apparently inspired Indira Gandhi to begin her own in Delhi. Since then successive Prime Ministers have hosted state sponsored Iftar parties. NDA Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee also continued this practice. After moving to Delhi last year, Modi broke a long tradition of Indian Prime Ministers hosting Iftar parties. In his last 14 years first as Gujarat Chief Minister and now as Prime Minister, Modi neither hosted an iftar party nor attended one himself. He did not even attend President Pranab Mukherjee’s iftar.
Whether you like it or not, the attendance at the Iftar parties also sends some political signals. What are the signals emanating from Sonia’s Iftar? First of all, with her son Rahul Gandhi in tow, she was attempting to show a broad opposition unity on the eve of the ensuing Monsoon Session of the Parliament by mobilising the support of the like-minded parties. She has chosen the opportunity to send a message of larger opposition unity at a time when BJP and the Modi government are on the backfoot following a series of controversies from Lalitgate to Vyaam scam to PDS scam.
Secondly, Sonia wanted to send a political signal that the Congress is still relevant. This was evident from the impressive attendance of Sonia’s Iftar party this year, which must have brought cheers to the Gandhis. Last year, soon after the defeat also she hosted the Iftar, but the attendance was poor then.
The third signal is that the Congress has to depend on a coalition to survive and the UPA is not dead. The Iftar was an attempt to get back the old allies and also find new ones. Whether the attendance was the top-level leaders or second level leaders, she had succeeded in this by and large. She had carefully chosen the guest list consisting of most non-NDA allies and also personally wrote a letter followed it by phone calls. The regional parties, which are not part of the BJP-led NDA, but have still been kept away, include the AIADMK, BJD, and TRS, which rule Tamil Nadu, Odisha, and Telangana, respectively. The result was that she got back four of her UPA allies and added a new one JD(U). The leaders who graced the Iftar include the NCP chief Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel, JD(U) leaders Nitish Kumar, Sharad Yadav and K.C. Thyagi, National Conference chief Omar Abdullah, Trinamool Congress leader Derek O’Brien, BSP’s Satish Mishra, RJD’s Prem Gupta were the high profile leaders reminding of the UPA days. The presence of the DMK chief Karunanidhi’s daughter made it clear that the Congress would welcome the DMK back.
The fourth is that she is still in command and can play a pivotal role in opposition unity. The talk at the Iftar party was not about those who attended but those who did not attend, particularly the Samajwadi Party and the left Parties. Although the left did not attend they cite a different reason for staying away. The Bihar politics played a role in this because the Left parties are not part of the broad JD (U), RJD, Congress and the NCP coalition in Bihar. Secondly the CPI (M) did not want to share the table with the Trinamool Congress. As for the SP chief Mulayam Singh’s absence, it is again the U.P. politics, which stopped him as the Congress is planning to stage demonstrations against the SP next week on his feud with a police officer. However, there are indications that the left might go along with the opposition in the Parliament on issues of convergence. All this confusion is because of the inherent contradictions in the UPA coalition.
Coming back to the basic point, the trends in the 2014 Lok Sabha poll have clearly depicted that the Muslim community no more pays any heed to politics of appeasement. Political parties too should understand that they cannot fool the minority community anymore with tokenism and appeasement. The reality is that with the lowest ever representation of Muslims in the current Lok Sabha, can tokenism help the Muslims to resolve their problems? What is required is development of the community and jobs, education and health facilities besides security.