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March 29, 1999
ASSEMBLY POLL '98
Jaya meets Sonia, warns of 'political quake'
George Iype in New Delhi
Two women who had hardly spoken to each other for years broke the ice today. And Delhi's movers and shakers had lined up at the Ashok Hotel to witness the event.
The renewal of friendship between Congress president Sonia Gandhi and All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam general secretary J Jayalalitha at the tea party hosted by Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy could augur ill for the year-old Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.
Jayalalitha set the tone for a possible political change. In her strongest-ever warning signal to the Bharatiya Janata Party, the AIADMK supremo said: "There was an earthquake in northern India yesterday. Our meeting is a political earthquake."
Gandhi and the entire top brass of the Congress -- barring the party's leader in the Lok Sabha Sharad Pawar -- queued up to meet Jayalalitha, sending out a clear message that the Congress is not averse to doing business with her again.
Gandhi ended days of suspense by reaching the reception 45 minutes after it started and nearly 20 minutes after 'Amma', accompanied by a host of AIADMK politicians, arrived.
But she sat and spoke with the AIADMK chief only for five minutes. "We are old friends," said Jayalalitha. "Let us chat," replied a beaming Gandhi.
As the national media got restive and Jayalalitha and Gandhi exchanged pleasantries, the latter pleaded, "Ours is a social gathering. No political questions please."
But jostling with one another to have a word with the two most powerful women in the country were a host of important politicians, corporate bigwigs and diplomats. They included three former prime ministers: P V Narasimha Rao, Chandra Shekhar and H D Deve Gowda.
Among others who graced the party were senior Congress politicians Dr Manmohan Singh, Balram Jakhar, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Madhavrao Scindia, Jitendra Prasada and V N Gadgil. A number of second-rung politicians and members of Parliament were also present.
Interestingly, to convey the impression that the tea party was not the beginning of an attempt to topple Prime Minister Vajpayee, Dr Swamy had extended his invitation to most politicians of the BJP, its allies and other opposition leaders as well.
But from the BJP, only Minister of State for Human Resource Development Uma Bharti turned up. The sanyasin from Khajuraho was seen chatting with some Congress heavyweights.
Former deputy prime minister Devi Lal, his son and Indian National Lok Dal chief Om Prakash Chautala, Lok Sabha member Buta Singh, Rajya Sabha member Suresh Kalmadi, and Shiv Sena MP Pritish Nandy also showed up.
The notable absentees included Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, Rashtriya Janata Dal president Laloo Prasad Yadav and Leftist politicians like Harkishen Singh Surjeet and A B Bardhan.
While many guests counted the Sonia-Jayalalitha meeting as a significant development in the realignment of political forces that is expected to take place soon, others pooh-poohed it as a social gathering "signifying nothing".
"It is a good beginning for the Congress as well as the AIADMK. Political friendship begins by rubbing shoulders. Sonia and Jayalalitha have done it," proclaimed Ghulam Nabi Azad.
Congress MP T Subbirami Reddy felt "the political crow here is a bad omen for the BJP. Jayalalitha herself has raised a storm against the government by calling for the ouster of Defence Minister George Fernandes. So she has joined hands with the Opposition on some crucial issues."
Narasimha Rao, as is his wont, was more sagacious and offered an old nugget: "Politics is the art of the possible."
His successor Deve Gowda said, "The sad thing is that even the alliance partners of the BJP are fed up with the Vajpayee government. The BJP's structure at the Centre can come crumbling down any moment."
But Kalmadi was overheard telling a curious foreign diplomat that "the meeting between the two women is not politically significant". "It is just a social gathering. Don't read too much into it," the erstwhile Congressman from Pune told the diplomat.
But many believe Jayalalitha's statement that her meeting with Gandhi is "a political earthquake" is significant.
For one, this was the first time since the Congress and the AIADMK broke their alliance before the 1996 general election that the two parties were making any serious effort to come together.
Two, by meeting Gandhi and a host of other opposition politicians in the capital, Jayalalitha has made it clear to the BJP leadership that she is not averse to the idea of forming an alternative government at the Centre.
The relations between Sonia Gandhi and Jayalalitha have thawed. Political observers are now waiting to see what this means for the central government.
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