New Delhi: Manmohan Singh would continue as prime minister till 2014, the Congress declared emphatically Thursday but the crucial question of who would be India’s 13th president continued to be mired in uncertainty with the political intrigue and hectic consultations through the day yielding no answers.
Though it was being hoped that the Congress core committee, comprising party chief Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh amongst others, would take a decision on who would be its candidate in the race for Rashtrapati Bhavan and end the suspense that did not happen. The announcement, it was believed, would be made only after the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) meets Friday.
With the prime minister leaving for an eight-day trip to Mexico and Rio de Janeiro Saturday, this is a decision that can be delayed no longer.
The Mamata-Mulayam nexus of the Trinamool Congress chief and the Samajwadi Party (SP) president said former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was their first choice. The 81-year-old was president from 2002-2007 and would be 86 by the time he finishes his second tenure. “Kalam is our candidate,” was all that Banerjee told the battery of media personnel after meeting Mulayam Singh Thursday night. She had earlier stressed that her relationship with the SP was strong. She also said she had not yet left the UPA but the “ball was in the Congress’ court”.
But Banerjee was categorical in her assertion that she would not be attending the meeting of the UPA. Banerjee and Mulayam Singh had Wednesday thrown a spanner in the presidential poll works with its shock list of Manmohan Singh, former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and former speaker Somnath Chatterjee as their preferred choices.
The two regional satraps, which together account for 10.7 percent of the electorate for the presidential election and had Wednesday virtually rejected the Congress choices of Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Vice President Hamid Ansari, are key allies of the government.
But in the shifting sands of politics, there are no real friends and no permanent enemies.
While there were reports that Mulayam Singh and Banerjee would meet to firm up their bond against the Congress, there were also indications that the ruling party would woo the SP against the Trinamool.
The Congress, party insiders said, was simultaneously also making efforts to neutralise the newly-formed Mamata-Mulayam axis in the presidential elections through smaller parties and even sections of the Left.
Congress insiders said the party’s ‘reach out policy’ for the presidential election was an attempt to widen its support base. Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad and Lok Janshakti Party leader Ram Vilas Paswan are already on board.
Stymieing the efforts of the SP and Trinamool, the Congress, which had retreated into a shell Wednesday broke its silence Thursday afternoon, to say that Manmohan Singh would be prime minister till 2014. It also summarily rejected Kalam and Chatterjee.
Sources in the Congress, which had been cultivating SP as a possible buffer against the mercurial Banerjee, admitted that “there could be back channel talks” with the party.
The Congress knew that the Yadav leader cannot tango with Banerjee for long as he needs the central government’s support to develop Uttar Pradesh being ruled by his son and chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, party insiders said.
Close aides of the SP seemed to concur and said that Mulayam Singh was not averse to a “slight climbdown” on union Mukherjee as president but was completely against Ansari.
The opposition BJP-led National Democratic Alliance also did not let on who would be its choice for the post. It meets Friday to take a decision. Could Mukherjee still emerge as the UPA’s presidential candidate or would it be a dark horse like Speaker Meira Kumar?
It was anybody’s guess this Thursday night, just two days before the presidential elections are to be notified.