It was a farewell dinner that created news, more for party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi absenting himself than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in whose honour it was given.
Congress President Sonia Gandhi hosted a dinner for the outgoing PM and wife Gursharan Kaur at her residence, 10, Janpath. As it was meant to be a 'formal farewell' given by the party and its seniors, it raised eyebrows for Rahul Gandhi's absence, given the fact that he'd been in the past accused of being "disrespectful' to the PM (such as the ordinance-tearing episode, describing the draft law approved by the Cabinet as nonsense).
Congress sources later said he was out of the country for two days. The select gathering of less than a hundred had Union ministers (only from the party) and Congress Working Committee (CWC) members. Sonia Gandhi, "buoyant" according to guests, took personal care of the PM and his wife. When overzealous ministers and CWC members, crowded around the couple to have photographs clicked with them, Gandhi herself chided ministers to be careful. She presented a memento signed by all senior leaders and ministers, a shawl and a silver salver, to the outgoing PM.
While no formal speeches were made, the PM interacted personally with the guests during the 90-minute affair which began at 8 pm, inquiring from each about the elections in their constituencies, and about their families. All present confirmed the food on the menu was sumptuous, expectedly as celebrity chef Marut Sikka was in charge. There was biryani and nihari, among other items, though the frugally eating PM was seen sipping only coconut water. Later, his wife and he were accompanied at the high table by Sonia Gandhi, with Shashi Tharoor joining for a while.
The mood, though, was sombre, as a party senior later described to Business Standard. "When the mood is not for celebration and we are close to the results, where everybody knows we are going to face a massive setback, what else can you expect?"
The recent days have seen a blame game within the echelons, with a section wanting to shield Rahul Gandhi and instead pin the blame of the seemingly impending poll rout on the outgoing PM and an inept government.
While nearly all cabinet seniors (barring Ghulam Nabi Azad) were present, some like minister of state Deepa Dasmunshi could not make it, as they were tied down in their constituencies, with results only a day away. Among CWC members, Madhusudan Mistry and Mohan Prakash also could not come.
The 'greatest' absentee guest, as mentioned earlier, one the party will go red in the face trying to defend, was Rahul Gandhi, formally the second most important person in the Congress. Someone disclosed the family scion had last held a meeting with select spokespersons on Monday evening, after which he was not to be seen. The party is slated to hold a meeting of all its spokespersons on Thursday, to brief them on how to address the media on Friday, when most exit polls predict the Congress could face its worst-ever poll defeat.