New Delhi: The Congress on Thursday took on the Trinamool Congress-Samajwadi Party combine and rejected their choices for the President's post which in a major embarrassment to UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi also included Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In the first official reaction after the Mamata Banerjee-Mulayam Singh Yadav snub to the Congress's candidates, party spokesperson Janardhan Dwivedi said, "Manmohan Singh will remain the Prime Minister till 2014."
Dwivedi also said that the names of former Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee and former President APJ Abdul Kalam proposed by Mamata and Mulayam were not acceptable to the Congress. He added that Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Vice-President Hamid Ansari were the party's preferred choices and would continue to remain so.
Lashing out at Mamata, Dwivedi said, "Names come up during discussions and there is sanctity to close door talks. Mamata should not have announced the details of the meeting in public."
Mamata had met Sonia on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the possible candidates for the President and then told the media that Pranab Mukherjee and Hamid Ansari were the Congress candidates. Later on Wednesday evening she met Mulayam and put forward three names - Somnath Chatterjee, APJ Abdul Kalam and Manmohan Singh - while keeping quite on Pranab and Ansari. The inclusion of Manmohans name was seen a stinging indictment of the Congress-led UPA government.
The announcement by the TMC and Samajwadi Party chiefs stunned the Congress but now the party seems to be strategising to checkmate the Mamata-Mulayam duo by going in for Pranab Mukherjee's candidature for the President's post. Sonia Gandhi met Pranab on Thursday at her residence. She also met Defence Minister AK Antony, Home Minister P Chidambaram and DMK leader TR Baalu on Thursday.
Sources say that the Congress will name its candidate in within the next 24 hours. A Congress Core Committee meeting is scheduled for Thursday at 5:30 pm.
The Congress sees the Mamata-Mulayam bonhomie as a way to create a political crisis where there can a mid-term Lok Sabha election within the next 12 months. While rejecting the Congress's choice for the President, the duo did manage to sent out a strong message to the Congress leadership that "don't take us for granted."
While the Congress may not agree on Pranab Mukherjee's candidature, the party may ask for another name for the President from Mamata and Mulayam. While the Congress will try to push for Pranab's name, there is a possibility also that in the next 24 hours a compromise is reached outside the five names - Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Vice-President Hamid Ansari, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, former president APJ Abdul Kalam, and former Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee - that have been doing the rounds.
Mulayam has reportedly no problem with Pranab's candidature but he wants to create a political situation where there could be an election for the post. Mamata has a personal problem with Pranab and she is determined not to allow him to become the President.
Moreover, if the Pranab's name is forced on Mamata, she is capable of walking out of the UPA.
As of now, Congress is playing a high risk game by pushing Pranab's name. The numbers at the movement are such that there is a slight edge to the UPA and Pranab is the kind of person who may attract floating voters as the Samajwadi Party is unlikely to oppose him.
The Congress is also counting that apart from Mulayam, Mamata and BJP, no one wants an election.
Here is a look at where the parties stand on Pranab and Kalam's candidature:
10, 98, 882: Total number of votes (5,49,408 of MPs and 5,49,474 of MLAs)
5,49,442: Minimum votes required for President to be elected
Support for Pranab
Congress + DMK + NCP + NC + RJD + RLD = 413558 votes (37.6 per cent)
Support for Kalam
BJP + AIADMK + BJD + TDP + SP + TMC = 462896 votes (42 per cent)
Magic Figure: 549442
JDU + LEFT + BSP + Others = 222428 votes (20.4 per cent)