Will vote for Pranab for President, says Mamata Banerjee, adds she’s not happy

Kolkata:NDTV: Mamata Banerjee wore a stern look today as she announced that her party will vote for Pranab Mukherjee for President of India. She said she does so reluctantly, and only because she does not want her party’s 50,000 votes to be wasted via an abstention. She also made it clear that Mr Mukherjee, who quit as Finance Minister, is a poor second choice as far as she’s concerned and that taking this decision “hurt”.

Her motivating factors, she listed, are democracy and the interests of the people of West Bengal. Behind her, key Trinamool partymen stood at attention, impassive.

Regardless, Mr Mukherjee called Ms Banerjee and thanked her for her support.  The Congress too has thanked Ms Banerjee; the support of the one UPA ally that was holding out is now in the bag. Presidential elections will be held this Thursday and the country will know who will be the next President on Sunday – Mr Mukherjee’s chances look rosier than ever this evening after Ms Banerjee’s announcement.

“We wanted (former President) APJ Kalam to be the president…we would have done everything to make him win…but it is our misfortune that he refused to run,” Ms Banerjee said, adding that she wishes she “could have voted for Mr Mukherjee with a smile on her face, but that is not the case.”

She also wished Mr Mukherjee “good health” and that he would become President and “do good for India.” She said that she had not yet decided whether to support UPA candidate Hamid Ansari for a second term as vice-president. Soon after Ms Banerjee made her announcement, Mr Ansari phoned her to seek her support for his election, which will be held in August.

The BJP has said it is disappointed and party spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman wondered aloud what compulsion had made Ms Banerjee “change her mind and decide to support the government which is indifferent to the aam-aadmi.” The BJP leader also said, “Mamata was the first one to proclaim against the corrupt, uncaring UPA government…We don’t understand why she has decided to support (Mr Mukherjee).

Ms Banerjee’s announcement may not exactly be a vote of confidence for Mr Mukherjee, but it’s vote nonetheless. And, her decision, however coated in reluctance, conveys that she wants to remain with the UPA.

The announcement today comes after many rounds of back channel talks, say sources. Ms Banerjee said this was a political decision and she expected no gains in return.

This will however allow her to save face in a situation where she was left politically isolated.  Ms Banerjee’s strategy in the election for president backfired with unmitigated force – she picked a partner who double-crossed her, insisted she would only support Mr Kalam for president even before he decided whether he wanted to contest, and came close to burning her bridges with the UPA, the ruling coalition which she has repeatedly held to ransom over major policies.

Initially, it appeared that Ms Banerjee had outwitted the Congress. Last month, she engineered a liaison with another of its allies, Mulayam Singh Yadav. Like Ms Banerjee, his party won his home state of Uttar Pradesh with decisive numbers, allowing him a major role in the election for president. The votes of MPs are placed at par with the votes of state legislators. Together, they had the potential to derail the Congress’ candidate. More importantly, their friendship meant that the Congress could no longer assume that if Ms Banerjee quit the ruling coalition, Mr Yadav would step into her place, keeping the UPA up and running. The duo cheekily listed their three choices for candidates, leaving out Mr Mukherjee, and including the Prime Minister, a huge affront which suggested Dr Mamnohan Singh’s leadership had run its course and it was time to provide him with a sort of honourable exit as the leader of the government.

Then Mr Yadav, as he is wont to do, switched partners again. He secretly met with UPA chair Sonia Gandhi and offered her his party’s support for Mr Mukherjee. The UPA formally announced the then Finance Minister as its nominee. One by one, several other parties fell in line.  The BJP, Navin Patnaik and Jayalalithaa said their candidate would be former speaker PA Sangma, but it’s really no contest.  Mr Mukherjee has more than the numbers he needs.

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