Will NDA back Pranab Mukherjee? BJP core group meets today, final decision likely tomorrow

New Delhi:NDTV: A day after the UPA declared Pranab Mukherjee as its candidate for President of India, the focus has shifted to the NDA and whether it will support Mr Mukherjee. The BJP-led alliance has so far followed a wait and watch policy and hasn’t named any candidate. But a decision is expected after a key meeting of the allies tomorrow.

Meanwhile, sources have told NDTV that the Janata Dal(United), a key constituent of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), is inclined to favouring Mr Mukherjee as the next incumbent at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Signs of wider support for Mr Mukherjee were visible today with JD(U) leader Shivanand Tiwari making a strong pitch for him. “Both the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party have spoken in favour of his candidature for the post of President. It also seems that the Left parties of Bengal will also support Pranab Da’s candidature. Majority is in support of Pranab Mukherjee. He is a senior leader, he has had a clean political career, everyone respects him. I feel he should be elected unopposed,” he said. But his party chief Sharad Yadav hurriedly clarified that this was Mr Tiwari’s personal view. Mr Yadav, who is the NDA convenor, was more careful with his words, “Tomorrow we have NDA meeting. We will decide everything in our meeting. We cannot comment on anything before our meeting. Commenting anything before meeting would not good,” he said.

Hectic consultations are already underway between NDA constituents – the Akali Dal and the Janata Dal (United) held a meeting this morning and the BJP’s core committee will meet at 6 in the evening. Sources say the BJP might consider backing Mr Mukherjee, particularly since APJ Abdul Kalam, seen as a rival candidate, is reportedly unwilling to run against the Finance Minister. But, sources add, it may ask for its own person as Vice-President in exchange for supporting UPA’s candidate. The name of Punjab Chief Minister and veteran Akali leader Parkash Singh Badal and BJP’s Jaswant Singh is said to have cropped up in this context.

Akali Dal leader Naresh Gujral has however rubbished the talks of any quid pro quo. “The UPA has never made an offer on the Vice-President’s post. Why would NDA come into this? It’s not our call,” he said adding that “Parkash Singh Badal is very happy in Punjab. People of Punjab are also very happy with Badal Ji.”

When asked about the possibility of Dr Kalam’s candidature, Mr Gujral said the former President has never said that he is in contest for the President’s post. “I am surprised that you people are creating a bad name by taking Mr. Kalam’s name again and again. He has a good name all over the world. And I think we demean him and we trivialize his name by taking it again and again.”

Dr Kalam had avoided comment ever since an unprecedented second stint for him was suggested on Tuesday by Mamata Banerjee and the Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav. Mr Yadav yesterday sided with the Congress, but Ms Banerjee says Dr Kalam remains her only choice.

The Congress is trying to get Mr Mukherjee elected unopposed. Yesterday, after party chief Sonia Gandhi announced his name, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called BJP leaders Nitin Gadkari and Sushma Swaraj to try to bring the opposition on board for a consensus on Mr Mukherjee’s candidacy. He is also reportedly calling leaders in Parliament of all other political parties now to gather support for Mr Mukherjee. So far, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party have decided to back him for President; and the Left too seems to be open to persuasion.

The Congress is even hopeful of garnering the NDA’s support. Speaking to NDTV, Union Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, Pawan Kumar Bansal, said today, “There is no doubt that Pranab Mukherjee will be the next President. Support from all parties is pouring in. The NDA may also support him.” He even said that he is “still hopeful” of estranged ally Mamata Banerjee’s support as “nothing can be ruled out in politics.”

After the UPA announced it candidate yesterday, some BJP leaders met at LK Advani’s house in an emergency meeting last night. “Before declaring their choice, had the UPA or the Congress party consulted us, it would have been nice. However, they talked to us after declaring their choice. We will still organise an NDA meeting. I have already spoken to Advani ji and Sushma ji. Tomorrow Arun Jaitley will also join us. We will soon organise a meeting, discuss and will declare our choice,” party president Nitin Gadkari said from Mumbai.

BJP spokesperson Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi echoed the sentiment today when he said, “The NDA will meet and discuss tomorrow. It would have been better if they (Congress) would’ve spoken to us before announcing their nomination.”

The UPA finally declared Pranab Mukherjee as its candidate for President of India after a meeting on Friday evening at the Prime Minister’s house. When Mrs Gandhi made the announcement, she was flanked by all the UPA allies. Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee however was conspicuous by her absence.

The decision to nominate the Finance Minister was made much against her wishes.  And despite Mr Mukherjee’s personal appeal to “younger sister” Mamata, the West Bengal Chief Minister is in no mood to end her war with the Congress over presidential candidate. “If you think the game is over, you are wrong,” she told reporters last evening. And she has proved that it wasn’t an empty warning. The Trinamool chief wants Dr Kalam to be the President of India. She is seeking support for his candidacy on Facebook.

Mr Mukherjee is expected to resign from the Finance Ministry on June 24 after the Prime Minister returns from the G-20 summit in Mexico. “I am deeply honored on my nomination as a candidate for the election to the office for the President of India by my party and the UPA2. I am grateful to Congress president Shrimati Sonia Gandhi for this recognition. I accept this offer with all humility,” he said after Mrs Gandhi announced his name yesterday.

He added that he has been “fortunate to receive love, affection and the confidence of my party colleagues and also members and leaders of other political parties… I will now again seek their indulgence and support for the next few weeks.”

He even singled out Ms Banerjee, describing her as his younger sister, and urged her to change her mind about backing him. “Every political leader has the right to express his or her own view in own way. But I will seek the support of Mamata Banerjee, I consider her as my sister. So I have no problem in seeking the support from Mamata Banerjee and her party,” he said. But the West Bengal Chief Minister has so far refused to oblige. “I am standing by what I said. I will talk tomorrow,” she said.

Without Ms Banerjee, the Congress and its allies have 38 per cent of the vote for President. With Mr Yadav and Mayawati, who have agreed to back Mr Mukherjee, they hit 48 per cent. To cross the 50 per cent mark, they have lobbied the Left, which sources say will take a decision on June 21. Hence so far, he seems to be within striking distance of being elected unopposed.

As the chips stack up for Mr Mukherjee and other parties, Ms Banerjee, a power player till Friday morning, appeared isolated. Though she belongs to the UPA, she skipped last evening’s meeting, after announcing that she remained determined to support only Dr Kalam for a second term in office. In this, she insisted, she was joined by Mr Yadav. He left her stranded, opting to support the UPA. When asked about his change of heart, he said that Mr Mukherjee is a capable candidate, and that he is backing him after his choices for President were rejected.

So does Ms Banerjee feel cheated? “No I am not saying so. He is a political leader. I can’t say like this. Whatever I have said, I will talk later on I will talk tomorrow,” she said. Her party leaders however termed him a “traitor” for his “betrayal.”

On Wednesday evening, Mulayam Singh Yadav had stood next to Ms Banerjee as they squarely rejected Mr Mukherjee for President and more shockingly, suggested the Prime Minister be moved to that office. The Congress was stunned. Ms Banerjee’s track record of fighting the government she belongs to had prepped them to expect trouble from her. But Mr Yadav had been wooed and consulted by leaders as senior as Congress president Sonia Gandhi. He had shown every sign of being on the UPA’s team.

The Congress exchanged angry words with Ms Banerjee, accusing her of political and ethical transgressions. With Mr Yadav, it worked the back channels, hoping to win back the man who has often bailed the government out in crises, but also has a record of political infidelity.

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