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Face-off looms in India's presidential poll

Publication Date : 15-06-2012


Battlelines appeared to be drawn today between the Congress and its major United Progressive Alliance (UPA) ally, the Trinamul Congress, and a full-scale confrontation appears to be looming over the upcoming presidential poll with the Congress party rejecting all the candidates projected by the Trinamul-Samajwadi combine and snubbing Trinamul chief Mamata Banerjee for dragging in the prime minister’s name.

A contest between Pranab Mukherjee, likely to be the UPA candidate, and former President A P J Abdul Kalam, sponsored by the two regional parties, appears to be on the cards--subject to Kalam’s consent--ever as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Left parties and some others are yet to make up their mind.

Taken by surprise by the TMC-SP combine with the announcement of the names of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Kalam and Somnath Chatterjee as Presidential candidates yesterday, the Congress yesterday decided to pick up the gauntlet and proceed with fielding a candidate chosen by it and the other UPA allies.

Mukherjee, the Union finance minister, appears to be the frontrunner for the UPA but the talk in political circles tonight was that if the battle became too close to call in his case a new name may be considered. Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar's name was making the rounds.
The Congress leadership--Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, Mukherjee, P Chidambaram, A K Antony and Ahmed Patel--met tonight to chalk out the strategy, having consulted key allies DMK and NCP earlier in the day.

Authoritative Congress sources said later that the focus was only on one candidate--Mukherjee--and the party was willing to confront the TMC-SP, who made it clear today that they were backing Kalam.

"There is no dark horse,” the sources said and indicated that the UPA allies will meet tomorrow to firm up a coalition candidate. Banerjee will not be attending the meet.

Amid growing acrimony between the two sides, the mercurial Mamata said that she did not want to topple the UPA government on her part but she would not be intimidated. She would not leave UPA but the ball was in the Congress court, she said. 

The day's developments began with a strong statement from the Congress, recovering from the shock administered by TMC and SP, making it clear that there was no question of sparing the services of the Prime Minister for Rashtrapati Bhavan as proposed by Mamata and Mulayam Singh Yadav. The Congress also rejected the names of the two other candidates, Kalam and Chatterjee.

As the political temperatures kept pace with the rising mercury in the capital which touched 42.7 C, there was widespread speculation about possible fall-out of the confrontation in the UPA.

Fears that the country may face a mid-term poll were being whispered and this question was put to the West Bengal chief minister. Answering questions from hordes of reporters, Mamata said that if the ruling party candidate lost in the presidential contest, then it was for that party to consider the issue of early Lok Sabha poll ahead of 2014. 

In an apparent bid to woo the Left parties, Mukherjee called CPI-M leaders Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and Biman Bose in Kolkata over the phone and discussed the presidential election.

The Left parties are meeting in the capital on 21 June to finalise their strategy. Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) general secretary Prakash Karat met CPI leader A B Bardhan and discussed the issue.

The BJP-led NDA is meeting here tomorrow to discuss its strategy on the Presidential poll. Its leader L K Advani met AIADMK leader J Jayalalithaa and discussed the issue in the light of Kalam being projected by the TMC-SP combine. 

Advani, speaking after the meeting, said that they discussed many names but decided to leave it at the NDA meet on Friday to take it forward. “We (Jayalalitha and himself) felt it would be proper if we keep in touch with each other and coordinate our approach to this presidential election,” he said.

DMK chief M Karunanidhi iterated today that the party will support the Congress's candidate in the Presidential election. RJD chief Laloo Prasad and NCP chief Sharad Pawar have also said they would go with Sonia Gandhi’s choice.

Earlier in the day, the Samajwadi Party said it was open for talks to evolve a consensus on the Presidential candidate while indicating that it was not averse to getting the support of NDA for A P J Abdul Kalam for the top post. SP general secretary Ram Gopal Yadav also hit out at the Congress, accusing it of not dealing with Mulayam Singh's party in an “appropriate” manner while holding consultations on the Presidential poll. Yadav said the Congress called “two-MP” parties for consultations on the issue but “did not treat the SP the way it should have”.

"Responsibility for maintaining relations lies with the major partner. If there is something wrong, Congress should be held responsible,” he said.

News agency PTi quoted Samajwadi sources as saying that there is no final word on the party’s choice of a candidate for the Presidential poll. Mulayam Singh Yadav would take a decision after consulting senior party colleagues.

Earlier, Banerjee said that she and Yadav were seeking consensus on the candidature of Kalam and “whoever supports, supports and whoever does not support, we will go according to our path”.

“We have given a clarion call, whoever supports or not supports us is not our problem,” the Trinamul chief said.

Making clear her unhappiness with the Congress rejection of their nominees, Mamata said she wanted consensus on the names she proposed “but if nobody listens, what to do”. 

Earlier, her party MP, Kunal Ghosh, said if Congress pushes the candidature of Mukherjee or Ansari, Trinamul will contest with Kalam as its nominee.

Sources close to A P J Abdul Kalam, meanwhile, said today that he was adopting a “wait and watch” approach on his  issue. Kalam has maintained he would agree to enter the fray only if there is consensus on his name.


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