New Delhi: The UPA Friday named Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, one of India’s most versatile politicians, as its presidential candidate, tripping mercurial ally Mamata Banerjee and virtually ensuring his journey to Rashtrapati Bhavan next month.
Minutes after Congress president Sonia Gandhi made the formal announcement, after a meeting of UPA partners minus the Trinamool Congress, Mukherjee earned the support of several parties, including the Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Rashtriya Janata Dal.
The Left, Mamata Banerjee’s bitter foes, immediately congratulated Mukherjee, with Left sources saying a decision on backing him would be taken Saturday.
As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh quickly telephoned political leaders, including BJP’s Sushma Swaraj, seeking support for the finance minister and Congress troubleshooter, a confident looking Mukherjee, 76, made a similar appeal. “We have requested and appealed to all political parties to lend their support (to me),” he said. Political pundits said he was expected to earn more than 50 percent of all votes in an electoral college comprising MPs and members of state assemblies.
After Gandhi’s announcement, DMK leader T.R. Baalu draped a pink shawl around Gandhi’s shoulder and gave her a bouquet. He then presented orange stoles to the prime minister and Mukherjee.
The UPA decision left West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee floundering, with her nominee and former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam reportedly declining to contest.
If that happens, the only other person left in the contest would be former Lok Sabha speaker Purno Sangma, who has been propped up by the AIADMK and Biju Janata Dal (BJD). The BJD also refused to back Mukherjee.
Interestingly, Sangma does not enjoy the backing of his own Nationalist Congress Party, part of the ruling alliance.
The days of suspense over the UPA candidate ended Friday evening when Gandhi announced at the prime minister’s official residence that Mukherjee had been chosen because of his “long and distinguished record of public service standing over five decades”.
SP president Mulayam Singh Yadav, who only two days ago appeared to be sailing with Mamata Banerjee, echoed the view in Lucknow saying Mukherjee was an intellectual and a hugely capable leader.
Asked why he ditched Banerjee, who had earlier said Kalam would be the joint nominee of her party and SP, he replied: “In politics, you have to sail with developments.”
Earlier, former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati extended her BSP’s support for Mukherjee. She added in Lucknow that Mukherjee would win hands down.
Congress sources said the UPA expected the BJP-led National Democratic Front (NDA) to also back Mukherjee, who is one of the most senior members of parliament, having been first elected to the house in 1969. He first became a minister in the Indira Gandhi government way back in 1973.
But even as it announced Mukherjee’s candidature, Congress sources admitted Friday that the UPA would sorely miss his presence in parliament where he often single-handedly demolished opposition onslaughts.
Mukherjee’s candidature means the Congress will have to find a new finance minister — at a time when India is facing economic problems — and also a leader of the house in the Lok Sabha.
According to party insiders, Manmohan Singh may like to appoint Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia or C. Rangarajan, who heads the prime minister’s Economic Advisory Council, as the next finance minister. Gandhi is known to prefer a party veteran for the finance ministry.
Born Dec 11, 1935 at Mirati in West Bengal’s Birbhum district, Mukherjee, whose father too was in the Congress, took to politics in the 1960s after a brief career as a college teacher and a journalist.
The father of two sons and a daughter, he has held several portfolios, including finance, external affairs, defence and commerce. He was elected to the the Rajya Sabha in 1969, and re-elected in 1975, 1981, 1993 and 1999. He was elected to the Lok Sabha for the first time in 2004 and again in 2009.