The BJP is a divided house on whether to oppose Pranab Mukherjee or not. Mamata Banerjee has been totally isolated and only the Congress seems to be on a strong wicket, says Neerja Chowdhury.
Finally, the 'no' has come from Dr A P J Abdul Kalam, making it clear that he is not in the presidential race. The capital was abuzz all of Monday morning whether he would throw his hat in the ring. For pressure had been stepped up on him by Bharatiya Janata Party leaders and Mamata Banerjee to enter the fray as the 'people's candidate'.
L K Advani, who had been authorised by the National Democratic Alliance on Sunday to talk to all stakeholders to evolve a consensus, spoke to Kalam more than once to persuade him to enter the fray. The BJP calculated that if he agreed, the presidential poll would become a mini general election, and could charge the atmosphere in the country against the United Progressive Alliance.
Advani had deputed Sudheendra Kulkarni to talk to him. Kulkarni had earlier been authorised to explore the possibility of bringing Mamata Banerjee around to the NDA side. Interestingly enough, the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, who normally does not speak on political issues, suddenly did so and described Kalam as a 'nice' man. This was obviously calculated to create a 'mahaul' in his favour but was also a message to those in the BJP who were in favour of backing Pranab Mukherjee or Purno Sangma.
When Subramanian Swamy had met Kalam two days ago, the former President is believed to have insisted that he would agree to contest if he had the support of 55 percent of the collegium that elects the President. Subsequently, he is believed to have modified his position, and agreed to jump in the fray, provided he had the backing of the NDA, and the two regional parties -- Jayalalithaa's All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Naveen Patnaik's Biju Janata Dal -- which are backing Sangma.
When Advani had met Jayalalithaa three days ago, she is believed to have indicated to him that she might be willing to support Kalam and that it might be possible to get Sangma to step down. But on Monday, she went back to her support of Sangma.
Not only did the BJP fail to muster the support of AIADMK and BJD -- the two are moving in tandem -- it could not even ensure the support of its allies, the Janata Dal-United, which is openly rooting for Pranab and of the Shiv Sena, which is doing it in a roundabout way .
The JD-U has its own reasons for supporting Mukherjee -- respect for him as a person; a message to the BJP brass that they should not take it for granted and that there was no way it would accept the leadership of Narendra Modi; and possibly keep a door open for the Congress, if Modi were to become the face of the BJP in a national election, and the minorities start to gravitate towards the Congress.
The Shiv Sena, which had boycotted the Sunday NDA meet, had made a case for Kalam. But by so doing, it was actually expressing its opposition to Sangma's candidature, and thereby rooting for Pranab, in the belief that Kalam would not contest in the given situation.
The BJP's dilemma has deepened with Kalam's decision to remain out of the presidential sweepstakes. There is a group in the BJP which still favours putting up a fight against Mukherjee. It feels that the UPA should not be allowed a cakewalk, for the election of someone experienced and respected like Mukherjee, had built up over the months against the Congress.
But can they afford to support Sangma, and thereby risk dividing, and weakening, the NDA, when the argument for supporting him was to gather more allies, BJD and AIADMK? In any case, there was no certainty that Jayalalithaa and Patnaik would not have gravitated towards the Left parties, if they -- both enjoy a rapport with the Left parties -- had decided to support Sangma?
As things have turned out, would the NDA be left with no option but to either support Mukherjee or abstain in the poll, in the interest of retaining its unity? Breaking the NDA on the presidential issue, when its candidate will not even get elected, would hardly be called good pollitics.
Kalam's "no" leaves Mamata Banerjee totally isolated. She too will have to decide whether she abstains or decides to vote for Mukherjee, hiding behind the face-saver that Kalam's exit has provided her.
Given the way events have moved, it is now not clear whether Sangma will continue to be in the race.
The fact of the matter is that it is Mukherjee who has divided the NDA right down the middle, preventing a consensus from emerging, and it was compelled to postpone a decision on the subject at its Sunday meeting.
It is not for nothing that Mukherjee is called the most experienced politician in the country today, who has visible and invisible friends across the political spectrum, and in the corporate world, who are clearly batting for him. These friends prevailed upon Mulayam Singh Yadav to back down within hours of lobbing his bombshell with Banerjee, and he went that very night to meet Sonia Gandhi to firm up his support for Mukherjee.