NEW DELHI — Reflecting the possible line-up against the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, Trinamool Congress' Sudip Bandyopadhyay and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam's Kanimozhi were among 19 party leaders who attended a dinner hosted by United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi at her residence March 13.
Considerable significance is being attached to the dinner in the midst of speculation about the political realignment that could take place ahead of next year's Lok Sabha elections.
The meeting also took place against the backdrop of a stand-off with the government in parliament that has seen continuous disruptions since the start of second half of budget session March 5.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi later said there was "much political talk" during the dinner meeting.
He also said the leaders reflected tremendous positive energy, warmth and genuine affection.
"Fabulous dinner tonight, hosted by UPA chairperson, Sonia Gandhi Ji. An opportunity for leaders from different political parties to meet and bond, informally.
"Much political talk but much more important – tremendous positive energy, warmth and genuine affection," Gandhi said in a tweet.
Some leaders later said the dinner was part of effort to forge a united front to take on the BJP in the Lok Sabha battle next year, noting that regional rivals were coming together.
"The effort is on. The effort is going on. This is a part of that effort," said expelled Janata Dal-United leader Sharad Yadav said when asked if there would be a opposition-party front in 2019.
Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav said the effort to unite the opposition was underway.
"You can also see NDA allies are also angry. Chandrababu Naidu is angry, Akalis are also angry. They are losing faith in NDA's leadership. TRS is not happy."
"Laluji's (Rashtriya Janata Dal supremo Lalu Prasad) effort to have a mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) at the national level, this was a positive move towards that," Yadav further said, accusing the BJP-led government of political vendettas.
Congress communications in-charge Randeep Singh Surjewala told reporters the leaders discussed ways to fix accountability of the Narendra Modi government in parliament.
He accused the government of running away from debates on the Rs. 12,600 crore Punjab National Bank fraud case and failing to tackle unemployment and difficulties faced by farmers.
"When the government does not have interest to run Parliament, then it is natural that leaders of opposition parties, who are concerned about the problems faced by the people, will discuss the country's politics. There will be unofficial discussion on how to fix accountability of the government," Surjewala said.
Leaders who attended the dinner also included National Conference leader Omar Abdullah, Samajwadi Party's Ram Gopal Yadav, Bahujan Samaj Party's Satish Chandra Misra, All India United Democratic Front's Badrauddin Ajmal, Rashtriya Janata Dal's Misa Bharti and Tejashwi Yadav, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha's Hemant Soren, Communist Party of India-Marxist's Mohammad Salim and Communist Party of India's D. Raja.
Indian Union Muslim League 's P. K. Kunhalikutty, Jose K. Mani of the Kerala Congress (Mani) party, Jharkhand Vikas Morcha-Prajatantrik's Babulal Marandi, the Revolutionary Socialist Party's N. K. Premachandran, veteran socialist leader Sharad Yadav, Rashtriya Lok Dal's Ajit Singh and Janata Dal-Secular's Kupendra Reddy were also present, as was Hindustan Awam Morcha leader Jiten Ram Manjhi, who quit the National Democratic Alliance last month.
Besides Rahul Gandhi, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad, Leader of Congress in the Lok Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge and party leaders Ahmed Patel, and A.K. Antony were among those present.
Seventeen opposition parties came together against the BJP-led NDA during the presidential and vice-presidential elections last year, and Sonia Gandhi has been holding occasional meetings to nurture the bond. Party leaders said the group was expanding with Manjhi and Marandi coming to attend the dinner.
It is also noteworthy that Sonia Gandhi organized and hosted the dinner get-together, even after Rahul Gandhi took over as Congress president in December of last year, as it was believed that senior Opposition leaders would show more deference to her than they would to her son.
This dinner is also significant in the context of moves by regional parties like the Telanagana Rashtra Samiti and the Telugu Desam Party, which have attacked the BJP in the recent past and are said to be jockeying for a third front of parties against the BJP and Congress.