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Allies drag feet on Shekhawat
- Trinamul and Sena advise caution but NDA announces Vice-President’s name

New Delhi, June 18: The NDA will back Bhairon Singh Shekhawat for President but the alliance is far from united on his candidature.

This morning when the NDA met at Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s home, it is learnt that at least two constituents — the Shiv Sena and the Trinamul Congress — insisted that the announcement of Shekhawat’s name should be put on hold until they “finalised” their stand at internal meetings.

However, Jaswant Singh and Sushma Swaraj — she is the NDA’s spokesperson for the presidential election — said that unless Shekhawat’s candidacy was made public, the “third front” — which also met in Chennai today — would not disclose its “cards”.

That would make the Opposition’s job of finding a common ground difficult, they added.

Later, when the front suggested A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s name, BJP sources conceded that there was “little chance” to coordinate their efforts against the UPA. For the record, Sushma claimed that Shekhawat would win because of his “stature and popularity”.

“We are not kids. This is a presidential election. Why would they say in the NDA resolution that Shekhawat’s victory was certain'” she asked reporters.

The Sena, represented by its Rajya Sabha MP Manohar Joshi, gave a hint of the party’s thinking when he said it would unveil its decision on June 19, the day it was founded.

The Sena, born on the “Maharashtra for Marathi speakers” plank, had stated in its mouthpiece that Rashtrapati Bhavan would resound to the cry of “Jai Maharashtra” soon in a veiled reference to the fact that UPA nominee Pratibha Patil hails from Maharashtra.

However, BJP sources ruled out the chances of Bal Thackeray breaking ranks with the alliance on the President poll. “His Jai Maharashtra slogan doesn’t need to be reinforced by support to Pratibha Patil. In the end, for Balasaheb, the NDA’s unity will be more compelling,” a BJP leader said.

The Bihar chief minister and Janata Dal (United) leader, Nitish Kumar, mentioned the huge gap between the official votes of the UPA and the NDA and wondered how it would be plugged. “If Shekhawat loses, it will be disastrous for us,” a source quoted him as saying.

But Sushma is believed to have waved her hand and assured him it that would not be a “problem”.

Another NDA leader, who was twice called on by Shekhawat, cautioned the BJP that any insinuation of throwing “money power” to wean away votes was “unpalatable” and “subversive”.

BJP president Rajnath Singh, a Thakur, is believed to have suggested that “caste” should not be over-played. The context was the view, voiced by Shekhawat’s cheerleaders, that the Thakurs, regardless of party labels, would root for their kinsman.

Despite the apparent odds, BJP sources ruled out pulling Shekhawat from the fray.

The division within the Opposition ranks has not made the UPA complacent. The Prime Minister named Prithviraj Chauhan, a minister of state in his office, Pratibha’s official minder while Union minister Priya Ranjan Das Munshi was appointed her “chief electoral officer”.

A related meeting is also scheduled at Sonia Gandhi’s house.

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