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Two names keep pot boiling
Why not just Mukherjee, wonders ally

New Delhi, June 13: If the dramatic twists and turns in the presidential race has confounded the confusion, it also threw up conspiracy theories, countless layers of truth and fiction and wild guesses about who is using whom.

In the end, nobody was talking with any degree of finality on who would enter Rashtrapati Bhavan; there were suggestions of a hard bargain, a compromise candidate and a much larger political churning than a presidential election can ever trigger.

While most Congress leaders had switched off their phones, others expressed shock at the unfolding scenario.

Officially, spokesperson Rashid Alvi said: “The Congress Working Committee had authorised Sonia Gandhi to select the party’s candidate and she will announce the name at an appropriate time. Right now the consultation process is going on.”

The bland response hides the embarrassment the party suffered because of Mamata Banerjee’s announcement of Sonia’s choices and their prompt negation.

A UPA meeting is scheduled to be called to discuss the issue in the next two days.

Congress leaders admit it does no good to Sonia’s stature in national politics if an ally reels off her choices in public and then merrily demolishes them. “How does the Congress now withdraw both the names — Pranab Mukherjee and Hamid Ansari — declared as Sonia’s first and second choices? Do we admit Mamata overruled her and Mulayam Singh Yadav dictated terms to the ruling combine? This is a tricky situation,” one senior Congress MP said.

There are bigger worries as this development could be interpreted to suggest one important ally and an outside supporter do not have faith in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and want him kicked upstairs.

Asked if the Prime Minister could be changed, Congress leaders emphatically denied the possibility and insisted that these games should be viewed only in the context of presidential polls. But the allies nurse serious suspicions about the Congress’s intentions.

One NCP leader said: “We doubt the PM is being changed unless Rahul Gandhi is prepared to take over. But there could be a ploy to stop Mukherjee from becoming the President. Otherwise, Sonia should have given just one name instead of tagging Ansari along. Now we have to see how seriously Sonia sticks to her first choice. If she does, we don’t think Mulayam and Mamata will drag the matter to illogical conclusions. The President will be a person who is chosen by Sonia, not by Mamata or Mulayam.”

This is a significant remark, if viewed in the context of conspiracy theories, primarily suggesting that Sonia might have willingly left room for Mamata to manoeuvre.

Congress leaders fiercely contest such insinuations, asserting that Mamata’s eagerness to block Mukherjee and Mulayam’s desire to bargain for the Vice- President’s post combined to create this situation. They insisted that efforts would be made to create a consensus despite this divergence of opinions.

But consensus on which candidate? One senior Congress leader, also an AICC functionary, said: “The name of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, taken by Mulayam and Mamata, was just a blind card and a necessary symbolism to address the Muslim factor. Nobody expects Sonia to even consider that. Manmohan’s name is either plain mischief or a result of prompting from within a section of the Congress, though he will remain Prime Minister. The only real candidate they have put up is Somnath Chatterjee.”

Asked why should the party embrace a communist and sacrifice the most veteran Congress leader, he explained: “Why not? Somnath abandoned the CPM for our interest. Don’t forget that the two most important quarters Manmohan government received support from during the nuclear deal crisis were Somnath as Lok Sabha Speaker and the Samajwadi Party. Both factors are at play again. This is a myth that the Left would oppose Somnath as it can’t support a BJP-backed candidate.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by at least a couple of other Congress leaders. Asked if Mukherjee’s chances were over under these circumstances, one of these leaders said: “We can only say Somnath has replaced Ansari to give Pranab company at the top.”

The endgame of this political chess is yet to begin.