Pranab frontrunner in race to Raisina?

Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee appears to be gradually emerging as a strong contender in the presidential race.

Zeenews Bureau

New Delhi: Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee appears to be gradually emerging as the frontrunner in the presidential race. Mukherjee, who is known to have friends cutting across party lines, may make it to the Rashtrapati Bhavan as Pratibha Patil’s successor.

Although the Congress is yet to announce its candidate, the choice has zeroed down to one between Vice President Hamid Ansari and Pranab Mukherjee, reports said.

Key UPA constituent Trinamool Congress and Samajwadi Party, which held discussions on Thursday on the issue appear to be not averse to Mukerjee`s candidature if the Congress decides on it and evolves a broad consensus, sources in both the parties said.

However, the chances of Vice President Hamid Ansari becoming a UPA sponsored candidate are also not being ruled out completely given the fact that the running of the government is highly dependent on Mukherjee`s utility as a troubleshooter, Congress sources said.

The final decision depends on the party leadership, which has to take the call whether to spare Mukherjee for the constitutional post. A senior leader said Mukherjee also stood a chance because the government has only two more years to go.

They said that other key constituents of UPA, DMK and NCP, have promised their support to Congress and much would depend on what stand TMC, the second largest party in UPA, takes. Significantly, BJP ally JDU came out in support of both Pranab and Ansari.

Advocating “maximum consensus”, the most important constituent of the Left front, CPM, said on Thursday that it is open to supporting the candidature of both Ansari and Mukherjee.
Left backing for Ansari seems natural as the VP has secured support of many other leaders including vocal Lalu Yadav. Ansari is a Muslim; he is articulate and has performed reasonably well - barring midnight drama over Lokpal Bill - as the chairman of the Rajya Sabha.

However, Left’s openness to Pranab is an interesting development as it may imply that the Left has made up its mind to go with whoever the Congress chooses as its nominee.

Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee met Congress President Sonia Gandhi and SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav separately and discussed the issue. She later met Gandhi`s political secretary Ahmed Patel.

Trinamool sources also indicated that TMC would go with the UPA if there is a consensus on candidate being fielded by it.

A senior SP leader speaking on the condition of anonymity
said that Mukherjee was the most apt choice for President`s post and his party would have no problem supporting him.

Party sources said that they would "personally" prefer Pranab Mukherjee but would weigh political considerations in backing a Muslim candidate in the form of Ansari. The SP appears to be waiting for a formal approach from the Congress on the issue.

The BJP`s call for a contest and its opposition to Mukherjee and Ansari found no takers with the Left parties making it clear that they would not mind backing any of these candidates and that they were keen on a consensus.

Congress President Sonia Gandhi held discussions on the issue with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Parliament House this morning in which Mukherjee also joined.

Asked about "confusion" over names of Presidential candidates, Gandhi told reporters, "there is no confusion. Be patient, still there is time." Party sources said a formal announcement of the name is likely only by this month end.

The day also saw some drama when Congress spokesperson Renuka Chowdhury appeared to suggest that Mukherjee was too "valued" to the party and the government to be spared for the president`s post.

This prompted Banerjee to remark that Congress has announced that Mukherjee is not its candidate.

However, the Congress clarified that no name has been finalised and Mukherjee is not ruled out of the race though he is important for the party, government and the country.

SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, whom Banerjee met, broke his silence saying the Presidential candidate should be "political".

After an hour-long meeting at Yadav`s residence, she told reporters that they would meet again and take a joint decision after further consultations.

"Whatever we will decide, we will decide jointly," she said.

Earlier in 2007 too, Pranab’s name had emerged as a possible candidate to take over after APJ Abdul Kalam but his chances were scuttled by forces within the party’s itself citing the impossibility of let him retire from active politics.

As senior party leader Renuka Chaudhary put it: “it is impossible to think of UPA without Pranab Mukherjee.”

With PTI inputs