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Pranab in, contest closes NDA cool to ‘token’ fight

New Delhi, June 15: The NDA’s options have virtually closed with the declaration of Pranab Mukherjee as the UPA’s presidential nominee and the surge of support he has drawn from various parties.

BJP and NDA sources conceded they were veering round to backing Mukherjee because a “token” contest would be “meaningless”.

The BJP, especially L.K. Advani, had initially been tempted to endorse A.P.J. Abdul Kalam after Mamata Banerjee and Mulayam Singh Yadav announced his name. But sources within key ally Janata Dal (United) said Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who hosted Kalam to a lunch in Patna today, had advised the former President not to run and asked party MPs and MLAs to “support Pranabda”.

“It’s pointless to look for a candidate and forage for support at this stage,” a BJP source said. The BJP’s official stand, expressed by spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain, is that the NDA will meet “shortly” and take a call.

Soon after Sonia Gandhi announced Mukherjee’s candidature, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the BJP brass — party president Nitin Gadkari, Advani, and House Opposition leaders Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley — to solicit support.

BJP sources said they were “upset” with the Congress for presenting them with a “fait accompli”. A leader said: “After everything was done, their leaders thought it appropriate to speak to ours. This is not proper.”

However, leaders from other NDA parties made light of this complaint. “What could they (the BJP) have done? They had no plans except for speaking to a Kalam or a (Purno) Sangma. Both were non-serious candidates,” a source said.

A Shiv Sena leader said: “Frankly, we are not interested in this election.”

This morning, at an NDA meeting at Advani’s home, the Dal (United) had shot down the idea of supporting Kalam and said it favoured Vice-President Hamid Ansari. The BJP then decided against backing Kalam and risking a split in the four-member alliance.

Kalam, too, had stayed non-committal, telling reporters in Bihar this morning that “ a lot of people” had contacted him and he would take “the right decision at an appropriate time”.

However, by the time Kalam arrived at Kumar’s home, Sonia had declared Mukherjee’s name and even Mulayam had indicated his support for him.

Sources said Nitish told Kalam very respectfully: “Sir, we have the highest regard for you but the presidential issue is almost over with Pranabda emerging as a clear winner. There is hardly any room for anyone else now.”

Kalam agreed with Nitish, the sources said.

As for Sangma, sponsored jointly by the Biju Janata Dal and Jayalalithaa, few of the BJP’s partners had been excited about him. Sangma had twice met Advani and sought the NDA’s support playing on his tribal identity.

“Sangma did not get the backing of his own party (UPA ally Nationalist Congress Party). He has reduced the exercise to a joke. I can’t understand why Advani gave him time,” an NDA source said.

With the BJP’s stakes in the presidential polls all but over, it is looking at the prospect of contesting the Vice-President’s post, sources said. They added that the BJP had not thought of a candidate so far but Jaswant Singh and Najma Heptullah had begun scouting for support among other parties.