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Cong sees no immediate Pranab cloud

New Delhi, July 3: As the returning officer cleared Pranab Mukherjee’s candidature this afternoon, the Congress leadership sprang to life and shook off what many leaders described as a “dreadful prospect” of a hostile occupant in the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

When the scheduled news conference by the returning officer was initially cancelled, the Congress apprehended a deep crisis but Mukherjee’s election agent and minister Pawan Bansal emerged after some time from the hearing to declare that the objection had been rejected.

The officer later addressed the media and said the news conference was postponed because the hearing went on longer than expected.

The immense relief the information spread among Congress leaders was the most tangible hint of the alarm the allegation on office of profit had triggered among them.

One senior leader told The Telegraph: “Nothing could have been worse than having as President P.A. Sangma, who revolted over Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin. He also revels in the company of Subramanian Swamy (who had filed cases against the UPA leadership).”

A legal battle in the Supreme Court still cannot be ruled out, though courts have not yet blocked elections. Such disputes are usually taken up after the election process is over.

No civil court can challenge the decision of the returning officer and the only option before Sangma or the BJP is to move the Supreme Court, most likely through an election petition after the results. If the BJP sticks to such a schedule, the July 19 presidential election can go ahead.

Hoping that Mukherjee will become the next President without any further hiccup, his election agent Bansal condemned the BJP for making what he said were “baseless and preposterous” allegations.

Returning officer Vivek Agnihotri overruled the objections raised by the Sangma camp that had demanded Mukherjee’s disqualification on the claim that he held an office of profit as the chairman of the Calcutta-based Indian Statistical Institute (ISI).

Agnihotri did not divulge the “reasons” for his decision. The hearing continued for around 80 minutes.

Agnihotri, the secretary-general of the Rajya Sabha, said: “I have no authority to disclose what happened at the hearing. Proceedings of the summary hearing are not yet written and I will have to ask the Election Commission if the proceedings can be disclosed.”

When a reporter cited the right to information act, the official said: “You are welcome to use that route.” He added that Sangma could go to the Supreme Court “if he so wishes”.

Bansal, accompanied by home minister P. Chidambaram, appeared before the returning officer along with a Constitution law expert and produced the June 20 letter of ISI president M.G.K. Menon accepting Mukherjee's resignation.

Bansal, the polling agent of Mukherjee, admitted that it came as a bolt from blue when the nomination was challenged on a “flimsy ground”.

Told of allegations that Mukherjee’s resignation could have been backdated since his name was on the institute’s website till Monday afternoon, Bansal shot back: “Website updates are not our headache.”

The Lok Sabha website even now shows Mukherjee as the leader of House and the finance minister, although he resigned from both posts on June 26, two days before filing the nomination.

The two resignations had been already accepted by the President, Bansal said, pointing out that the ISI website also had names of some members who had resigned long ago. Mukherjee’s office in Parliament also displays his nameplate. On Mukherjee not submitting his resignation as ISI chairman to its council but to its president, Bansal said the council normally meets once in four months. “You don’t expect that he loses right to contest because his resignation is not accepted forthwith,” Bansal said.

Despite this bold posturing, the Congress fears the rival camp will now unleash a more aggressive dirty campaign.

Nominations of all 84 other candidates were rejected, 33 outright at the nomination stage itself for not filing a certified copy of the electoral rolls and the rest during the scrutiny, spread over two days, for either not having 100 supporters and seconders or not furnishing the Rs 15,000 security deposit.