Pranab Mukherjee became the official UPA nominee for Rashtrapati Bhavan on Friday and within hours showed signs of surging ahead of every other possible contender.
It was quite clear that the Congress's Mr Reliable with his widespread contacts and friends across the political spectrum would not find it hard to be the next occupant in Raisina Hill.
Within 48 hours of being rattled by a joint TMC-Samajwadi Party declaration that the parties would support three of their own nominees and not Mukherjee, the Congress camp was in a celebratory mood on Friday.
As expected, Mamata Banerjee did not attend the crucial UPA meeting at 4pm where coalition chairperson Sonia Gandhi proposed the name of Mukherjee, which was formally ratified and approved by all the UPA allies present. Banerjee had left for Kolkata in the afternoon, insisting her partnership with Mulayam Singh Yadav on the presidential issue was not under any threat and that former president APJ Abdul Kalam was still her first choice.
But Yadav was away in Agra evading reporters' questions. It was left to another senior leader of the Samajwadi
Party, Ramgopal Yadav, to issue an official statement extending support to Mukherjee within an hour of him being nominated. The statement indicated that the SP had no hesitation in supporting Mukherjee after the UPA officially declared its nominee.
It was clear that the Trinamool chief had been outwitted and isolated in more ways than one.
Long after the nomination was announced, Trinamool party functionaries kept insisting that they would continue to back Kalam and there was no question of supporting Mukherjee even though he was Bengali.
They said Mukherjee had not helped West Bengal knowing full well that it was facing bankruptcy and so, there was no question of revising their stand. There were doubts whether Banerjee would remain with the UPA for long especially after this embarrassment.
First Sonia Gandhi and then Mukherjee appealed to all parties to support the UPA presidential nominee.
BSP leader Mayawati held a press conference in Lucknow extending support to Mukherjee. It was soon followed by the Samajwadi Party's statement endorsing Mukherjee's candidature.
Congress sources said they had received encouraging signals from the Left and even from smaller parties like HD Deve Gowda's JD(S). A host of small parties had sent positive feelers.
In fact, with support for Mukherjee coming from every possible quarter, it was apparent that Kalam might not be too willing to enter the fray. Apparently, Kalam gave such an indication to Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar when the latter hosted a lunch for him in Patna on Friday afternoon.
Already Kalam's aides had made it amply clear that he would contest the polls only if he was guaranteed a minimum of 55% of the votes. It is likely that Kalam will stay out of the race under the circumstances.
The NDA will be in a difficult situation when it meets again to decide on its strategy for the presidential poll. Soon after Mukherjee's nomination was announced, the prime minister called up senior BJP leaders, including LK Advani, Nitin Gadkari, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, seeking their unstinted support for the UPA nominee.
But BJP spokesperson Syed Shahnawaz Hussain said the UPA did not take the path of consensus-building from the very beginning and instead only informed the NDA of its choice once it had reached a decision.
Nevertheless, there will be some hesitation in the NDA ranks. They would wonder whether it would be wise enough to put up a nominee against Mukherjee when he seems to be assured of the numbers. There could be some suggestion especially from partners like the JD(U) that the NDA instead extend its support for Mukherjee who appears to have enough friends cutting across political lines.
Already, leaders like Sharad Yadav and Shivanand Tewari of the JD (U) have said they have nothing against Mukherjee. They, in fact, praised him for having been able to acquire a stature of dignity over the years.
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