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Hurrah: Her & Harry’s
- Pratibha picked first lady President, cross-voting surprise icing on cake

New Delhi, July 21: The presidential poll lacked the killing suspense of the seventh Harry Potter launch, but it did throw up a few surprises. And the BJP and its “independent” candidate were the biggest losers in an election that has given India its first woman President.

Bhairon Singh Shekhawat not only lost to Pratibha Patil by over 3 lakh votes — prompting him to resign as Vice-President — but his party’s call for a “conscience vote” blew up in its face.

The man who had hoped the sorcerer’s stone of cross-voting would help him pull off a phoenix act watched in chagrin as all the magic went the way of the woman with a seeming knack for communicating with spirits.

Dissident BJP parliamentarians and MLAs voted for the United Progressive Alliance-Left nominee across the country, drawing a smirk from Pranab Mukherjee. “Conscience has gone to the other side,” the foreign minister said.

The “betrayal” in strongholds such as Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan will make the party shiver ahead of the 2009 general election.

The letdown in Karnataka, where ruling ally Janata Dal (Secular) abstained from voting, will pose a further question on the future of the National Democratic Alliance after the rebuffs from Bal Thackeray and Mamata Banerjee.

“We will have to face them (alliance issues) squarely, otherwise the NDA will cease to exist by 2009,” said BJP leader Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.

The party’s only consolation was that ADMK and MDMK legislators ignored the “third front” decision to abstain and four Congress MLAs in poll-bound Himachal Pradesh voted for Shekhawat, helping him notch 17,000 above the official numbers.

Yet, it was the extra 7,000 in Patil’s kitty that seemed laden with political significance.

Of the 17 MPs from the other side who voted for Patil, three each are believed to have come from BJP-ruled Gujarat and Rajasthan — which also happens to be Shekhawat’s home state. Uttar Pradesh provided four and the remaining seven came from a region where the BJP has been increasingly active in recent years: the Northeast.

The dissidence wracking the Gujarat BJP, however, hurt less than expected with Patil gaining only six extra votes from the Assembly. But the cross-voting elsewhere left the party stunned.

The BJP bled 18 votes in Karnataka, two in Jharkhand, eight of its nine votes in Arunachal Pradesh and 15 in Bihar, where many put it down to the railway minister’s wizardry — “Lalu ka kamaal”.

Uma Bharti’s loyalists in Madhya Pradesh didn’t vote for Patil but 11 of them “spoiled” their ballots, cast in Shekhawat’s favour, by scribbling “Om” or “Jai Shri Ram” on them.

The Shiv Sena had at the outset declared it would support the daughter of the soil, triggering a 223-58 landslide in her favour in Maharashtra, but some of the other allies came under the scanner, too.

It was anybody’s guess how much of the cross-voting in Bihar might have come from ruling partner Janata Dal (United). The same question haunted the BJP in Biju Janata Dal-ruled Orissa, where Patil bagged three more than expected.

Mizoram — where the ruling Mizo National Front abstained despite being close to the BJP — joined Left-ruled Bengal, Kerala and Tripura in denying the Vice-President a single vote.

Parliamentary affairs minister Priya Ranjan Das Munshi was exaggerating only slightly when he crowed: “Not a single member (of the UPA and Left) moved his or her position despite the mudslinging by the NDA against Pratibha Patil.”

In the evening, the Vice-President put in his papers, apparently to spare himself the embarrassment of having to greet Patil when she arrives in Parliament next week to take the oath of office. But he congratulated her on the phone and sent her flowers.

Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were among the first to greet Patil, who said it was a “victory of the principles which our Indian people uphold”.

Patil got 442 votes against Shekhawat’s 232 in Parliament, and 2,489 votes to the loser’s 1,217 in the states and Union territories. MPs have a uniform value of 708 for each vote but the value of an MLA’s vote differs from state to state.

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