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Fervent pleas failed to persuade Sonia

By K.V. Prasad

Congress leaders shout for the party president, Sonia Gandhi (third from right), to reconsider her decision not to be the Prime Minister, at the Central Hall of Parliament in New Delhi on Tuesday. — AP

NEW DELHI, MAY 18. Despite intense pressure to reconsider her decision not to head a Congress-led coalition government, Sonia Gandhi, chairperson of the Congress Parliamentary Party, tonight firmly stuck to her stand and declined the top political post.

Although Ms. Gandhi did not say so in as many words, in her concluding remarks at the end of nearly three hours of a meeting of the specially convened general body meeting of the CPP, she said: "I am aware of causing anguish ... but I think if you trust me, allow me to take my decision.''

The crisp three line summation came after agitated CPP members forced the party leadership to amend a resolution twice before accepting the one that read: "In the light of the sentiments expressed by the members of the Congress Party in Parliament and taking into account unanimity of opinion, this House requests Ms. Sonia Gandhi, to reconsider her decision in the best interest of the country and the Congress Party.''

Besides MPs, former MPs, Chief Ministers, former Chief Ministers, senior leaders and members of the Congress Working Committee, Priyanka and Robert Vadra too were present on the occasion. The couple were made to occupy the front row along with Rahul Gandhi.

The resolution moved by senior leader Pranab Mukherjee had initially suggested that the Congress president be authorised to take an appropriate decision in the best interests of the country and the party. However, Mani Shankar Aiyar and others vociferously protested the "authorisation.'' He stood near the podium dictating the resolution to Mr. Mukherjee till the latter deleted the authorisation.

However, senior party leaders like M.L. Fotedar and Ghulam Nabi Azad, among others, were of the view that even though the resolution did not contain any authorisation, Ms. Gandhi's appeal to let her take her own decision implied that it was for the Congress president to have the last word.

The mood at this evening's meeting in the Central Hall of Parliament was sombre as against the euphoria that was witnessed on Saturday morning when the CPP unanimously re-elected Ms. Gandhi as the chairperson. Similarity, if any, was the standing ovation she got as she entered the hall around 7.00 p.m. It ended there.

MPs began to surround the podium soon after Ms. Gandhi made the opening remark that following her inner-voice she must "humbly decline'' the post of the Prime Minister.

It took some time to restore order even as she cajoled and at times in a firm voice directed the MPs to return to their seats. She even warned that she would leave the Hall if order was not restored. Senior leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad, Priyaranjan Dasmunshi, Oscar Fernandes, Ahmed Patel and others persuaded the agitated MPs to return to their seats. They also promised that the MPs' views would also be heard.

Ms. Gandhi said that throughout the past six years she had been in politics "one thing has been clear to me. And that is, as I have often stated, that the post of Prime Minister is not my aim. I was always certain that if ever I found myself in the position that I am today, I would follow my own inner voice. Today, that voice tells me I must humbly decline this post.''

Reminding the CPP that by electing her as their leader, the members had reposed their faith in her, she said it was this faith that had placed her under tremendous pressure to reconsider her decision. "Yet, I must abide by the principles which have guided me all along. Power in itself has never attracted me, nor has position been my goal. My aim has always been to defend the secular foundation of our nation and the poor of our country — the creed sacred to Indiraji and Rajivji. We have moved forward a significant step towards this goal. We have waged a successful battle. But we have not won the war. That is a long and arduous struggle, and I will continue it with full determination. But I appeal to you to understand the force of my conviction. I request you to accept my decision and to recognise that I will not reverse it.''

Thereafter began a torrent of speeches. Some implored, some beseeched, others put in a humble request in the name of the teeming millions, the poor, the Dalits, the farmers, the downtrodden and the youth to reconsider the decision. Speaker after speaker said they would not have the face to go back to their constituencies and explain why Ms. Gandhi did not become the Prime Minister, after the party sought and got the mandate in her name.

The members sought to underline that their presence in the House would be rendered rudderless unless she was the Prime Minister. K.H. Muniyappa, a senior scheduled caste leader who has been elected for the fifth time from Karnataka, threatened to send in his resignation, as did first-time MP from Siddipet, Sarvey Sathyanarayana.

Mr. Aiyar, who had the first chance to give his views, was emphatic that the inner voice of the CPP members was that she be the Prime Minister. In fact, he began by addressing her as "Madam Prime Minister,'' a salutation many an MP followed later.

Renuka Chowdhary appeared to be choking on her words and young newsreader-turned MP, Tejaswani, let out an appeal to Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra to persuade Ms. Gandhi to go back on her decision.

It was left to senior leader Arjun Singh to wind up the proceedings and he gave a historical perspective, the importance of the Central Hall in the Indian Constitution, the role of the Nehru-Gandhi family in building the country, the fight against communal forces and Ms. Gandhi's own role. "I know your sense of judgment and know that you are not acting out of fear or cowardice.'' While leaving the final decision to her, Mr. Arjun Singh said that the nation stood at the crossroads of history and only the future would show whether the communal forces were vanquished or if they would stand up again. Proposing the vote of thanks, Mr. Dasmunshi said that the mandate of the 2004 general elections was decisively against the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance and in favour of the secular alliance led by Sonia Gandhi. He said the BJP was destroying the Constitution since the party never questioned Ms. Gandhi when she, as the Leader of the Opposition, enjoyed the status of Cabinet Minister but brought it up as soon as she came close to becoming the Prime Minister.

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