Pranab-Kalam contest likely

NEW DELHI, June 14:
Stage was set for a confrontation and a likely contest for Presidential poll with the Congress party today deciding to take on TMC-SP combine by rejecting all their candidates on a day of major developments that could impact the country’s political landscape.
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 although BJP, the Left parties and some others are yet to make up their mind.
Shocked by the unilateral announcement of the names of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Kalam and Somnath Chatterjee as Presidential candidates by SP-TMC yesterday, the Congress today decided to pick the gauntlet and proceed with having a candidate chosen by it and the other UPA allies.
Mukherjee, the Union Finance Minister, appears to be the front runner 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, who are backing any Congress candidate, earlier in the day.
Authoritative Congress sources said later that the focus was only on one candidate i.e. Mukherjee and the party was willing to confront 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. TMC leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has chosen not to attend it.
There was an open spat between Congress and Mamata with the ruling party accusing her of being unethical by disclosing yesterday the names of Mukherjee and Vice President Hamid Ansari that had been conveyed to her by Gandhi.
Amid growing acrimony between the two, 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.
The day’s developments began with a strong statement from the Congress party, 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 the Rashtrapati Bhawan as proposed by Mamata and Mulayam Singh Yadav, SP supremo.
The Congress also rejected the names of two other candidates Kalam and former Lok Sabha Speaker Chatterjee. The party then went on to hit out at Mamata for being “unethical”.
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 phone and discussed the Presidential election.
The Left parties are meeting in the capital on June 21 to finalise their strategy. CPI-M General Secretary Prakash Karat met CPI leader A B Bardhan and discussed the issue.
At a press conference later, Bardhan favoured a woman dalit as an ex-President in remarks interpreted as batting for Meira Kumar. However, party sources said there was nothing serious about this as the party has not considered the matter in depth so far.
The BJP-led NDA is meeting here tomorrow to discuss its strategy on the Presidential poll, which has taken a new turn. Its leader L K Advani met AIADMK leader Jayalalithaa and discussed the issue in the light of Kalam being projected by TMC-SP combine.
Disapproving of Banerjee’s action of disclosing the names of Mukherjee and Ansari, the Congress said the process of consultation was still on and Gandhi had not finalised any name.
Gandhi is in the process of consulting even single-member parties and in the course of it two names have come up. “If Congress had decided on the name, two names would not have come up,” Congress General Secretary Janardan Dwivedi said.
“There is a dignity to the process. When such talks are held, names are not discussed outside,” he said.
When DMK leader T R Baalu was asked if his party was fine with Mukherjee’s candidature, he said, “it is between the two higher ups. My leader has communicated the matter long back. We stand by it.”
Mamata 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 Trinamool chief said.
Earlier her party MP Kunal Ghosh said if Congress pushes the candidature of Mukherjee or Ansari, Trinamool will contest with Kalam as its nominee.
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”. (PTI)