PM reaches out to BJP, invites top party leaders to dinner today

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Friday invited senior BJP leader L K Advani and the leaders of opposition in Parliament, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, for dinner in an attempt to reach out to the opposition days before Parliament's winter session, which is expected to be tumultuous.

The invitation for dinner on Saturday is part of the dinner and lunch diplomacy Singh has initiated over the last few days, breaking bread with Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and BSP chief Mayawati and a dinner for leaders of UPA partners Friday evening.

Government sources said it was reassuring that all allies attended the dinner and Singh discussed the strategy in Parliament with them. The allies are believed to have told the government that they did not want to vote in the house after a discussion on allowing FDI in multi-brand retail and the government should do its best to prevent such a situation from arising.

At the same time, they also assured the government that they would stand by it if opposition parties moved a no-confidence motion, the sources said. It is for the speaker to decide whether an executive decision can be voted upon in the house and the grounds seem to favour the government on this, they added.

UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, defence minister A K Antony, finance minister P Chidambaram and home minister Sushilkumar Shinde attended the dinner. Allies who were present included the DMK's T R Baalu, National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah, the NCP's Praful Patel, RLD leader Ajit Singh and the IUML's E Ahamed.

The PM's dinner with the BJP top brass was more important given the main opposition's aggressive posturing, the sources said. They, however, expressed confidence that everyone will come on board as no party wants early elections.

"Only Mamata Banerjee seems to be enthusiastic about voting as she wants early elections. How many parties want the government to fall and face a fresh election? Anyway, we have the majority and we are ready for any eventuality," a government source said.

On Saturday, Singh will seek the main opposition party's cooperation to push the government's legislative business when he meets the BJP leaders, the sources said. While he is expected to engage them on the economic reform agenda, the issue of FDI in multi-brand retail — on which the BJP does not have any ideological differences with the Congress — will come up.

While accepting the invitation, the BJP, however, is unlikely to show any leeway to the government and climb down from its plan to corner the government. "Running the house is the responsibility of the ruling party. The obstinacy and the adamant attitude of the Congress is responsible for the disruptions. We want Parliament to function not for 60 days but 100 days as for us Parliament is the religion of democracy," BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar said.

Singh's meeting with the BJP leadership as also his talks with parties supporting from outside is seen as an indication of the UPA's new-found willingness to reach out and engage with parties outside the UPA to steer its reform agenda. The dinner diplomacy will also deny the main opposition an opportunity to claim that it was not consulted.

With the SP and BSP yet to reveal their cards, the immediate concern for the government — which survives on a razor-thin majority after the Trinamool Congress walked out — still is plans by parties to seek a discussion and a vote in both houses of Parliament on allowing FDI in multi-brand retail.

The BJP has convened a meeting of its parliamentary party executive on November 20 to decide its strategy although NDA convenor Sharad Yadav has declared that the session will not be washed out. Despite the BJP's aggressive posture against FDI in multi-brand retail, signals from the NDA convenor and the Left suggest that non-BJP opposition parties may not push this beyond a point.

Even the Left today made it clear that it does not want to destabilize the government, giving it breathing space. Left leaders reiterated their demand for a discussion and vote on FDI and made it clear they will oppose reform measures such as allowing FDI in insurance and pension.

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