June 18: L.K. Advani and loyalists Sushma Swaraj and Ananth Kumar were today left isolated in the BJP and the NDA after A.P.J. Abdul Kalam refused to enter the presidential fray as Opposition candidate.
The BJP’s strategy to go for a contest, crafted largely by Advani’s former political aide Sudheendra Kulkarni, was not welcomed by allies Janata Dal (United), Shiv Sena or the Akali Dal.
Late tonight, Sena MP Sanjay Raut said on record his party had decided to back Pranab Mukherjee as he was “the perfect presidential candidate”. The announcement came after the Union finance minister spoke to Sena patriarch Bal Thackeray in the evening.
Raut, however, clarified that the Sena’s alliance with the BJP stood intact otherwise, despite it having broken ranks over the presidential nominee.
Kulkarni, back after a stint in jail for alleged involvement in a cash-for-votes scandal, had dealt with Mamata Banerjee during NDA rule as the coalition’s trouble-shooter in Bengal. Advani had hoped the association would come in handy to revive the BJP’s relationship with the Trinamul Congress chief.
In the BJP, questions began to be raised once Advani, Sushma and Kumar rooted for a contest at a core committee meeting last Saturday. Sources said party chief Nitin Gadkari had “no choice” but to fall in line as he was outnumbered. Arun Jaitley, Rajnath Singh and Murli Manohar Joshi — the others whose views generally count — were absent.
Advani and his backers argued that Sonia Gandhi had “not bothered” to consult them over Mukherjee’s candidature even “for form’s sake”, so there was “no reason” for the BJP to accept her candidate.
The leaders also questioned the political message that an endorsement of Mukherjee would send down the line. They argued that it would imply an endorsement of Mukherjee’s record as finance minister as well.
The BJP core committee met tonight to assess the day’s developments and decide if it was worth its while to persist with the fight, either by backing Purno A. Sangma or by starting a search for another nominee.
The BJP had been inclined to back Sangma but the Sena has rejected his candidature. Sources said neither was the RSS “terribly excited” about Sangma, although the BJP had peddled the line that backing a Christian tribal from the Northeast would help the party secure a toehold on “uncharted terrain”.
But some BJP leaders felt that Sangma could do a Kalam and leave the party in a spot by pulling out at the last minute. Sources said the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), to which Sangma belongs, was pressuring him to withdraw from the fray.
Besides, they said, Sangma may not be able to overlook the fact that Sonia had handpicked his daughter Agatha to be inducted into the council of ministers despite Sangma having once left the Congress over Sonia’s “foreign origin”.
“It is possible that the NCP has asked Agatha to work on her father,” a BJP source said.
However, Subramanian Swamy, who has emerged as another NDA manager along with Kulkarni, met Sangma this evening and assured him of the coalition’s support. But BJP sources said he had not been authorised by the party to speak to Sangma and had done it as an individual initiative.
The cracks in the BJP and the NDA have raised doubts over the Opposition’s ability to even put up a token fight against Mukherjee.
Earlier, Advani had gone into an overdrive on Kalam after RSS chief Mohanrao Bhagwat described the former President as a “nice man” at an event in Haridwar on Sunday. “It was tantamount to a go-ahead from the Sangh,” a source said.
BJP sources said Advani had phoned Kalam this morning but the former President indicated he was not keen on a contest. Advani then marshalled Kulkarni’s services. Kulkarni, back in the BJP to “advise” Gadkari, contacted Kalam twice and was given the same answer each time.
The BJP’s hopes to persuade him crashed after Kalam issued a formal statement late this afternoon.
The BJP leaders then began looking at their Plan B: to support Sangma provided his original sponsors, Jayalalithaa and Naveen Patnaik, did not abandon him.
But Mamata’s coolness towards Sangma was the first problem. “It defeats both our objectives. Not only do we not have the Sena on our side over Sangma, the idea of getting Mamata on board the NDA will not work,” a source said.
Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar of the Dal (United) said he favoured a consensus. “There has been free and fair discussion (in the NDA). We favour a consensus, but how will there be a consensus unless the NDA itself evolves one? So, consultations are continuing,” he said in Patna.