Kalam out of presidential fight, BJP, Mamata red-faced
Former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Monday opted out of the presidential election after studying the "totality" of the situation, dealing a blow to the BJP and Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee who badly wanted him to take on Pranab Mukherjee.
His decision spiked what could have been a high-profile battle between him and Finance Minister Mukherjee, who appears set to occupy the Rashtrapati Bhavan as the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) nominee.
The Bharatiya Janata Party refused to comment on Kalam's decision.
With Kalam - who was the president in 2002-07, not joining the race, the BJP said it will meet again to decide whether it should back Mukherjee or support former Lok Sabha speaker Purno Sangma, the joint candidate of the AIADMK and Biju Janata Dal.
Breaking his silence since his name began doing the rounds as a possible presidential candidate, Kalam, 80, said many politicians and others wanted him to contest.
"Though I have never aspired to serve another term or shown interest in contesting, Mamata Banerjee, other political parties wanted me to be their candidate," he said in a brief statement.
"I am really overwhelmed... This being their wish, I respect it. I want to thank them for the trust they have in me.
"I have considered the totality of the matter and the present political situation and decided not to contest the presidential election," he said.
Informed sources said Kalam conveyed his decision first to BJP star L.K. Advani, who telephoned him twice requesting him to contest next month against Mukherjee.
Sudheendra Kulkarni, a former aide to Advani, met Kalam twice Monday in a bid to persuade him to take the plunge.
But Kalam, who had also consulted close friends, eventually decided not to join the race, perhaps realizing that his chances of winning were near nil.
Unlike in 2002 when he enjoyed near universal support barring the Left, this time even some sections of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) were not eager to field him.
Political observers said the decision was embarrassing for the BJP and Mamata Banerjee as they both rooted for Kalam without even consulting him.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was also for Kalam.
In Patna, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar (JD-U) said there should be a free and fair discussion in the NDA meeting.
"We are in favour of consensus (on the president poll) but how will there be a consensus unless NDA itself comes up with a consensus? Efforts are on to build a consensus," he said.
What came as a surprise was BJP MP Maneka Gandhi meeting Mukherjee. After her meet, she said she wants consensus on president.
The Congress, which wants other parties to also back Mukherjee, welcomed Kalam's exit.
"(Kalam) is a very distinguished person... I think it obviously must be an appropriate decision," spokesperson Manish Tewari said.
Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, who had earlier appeared to go with Mamata Banerjee, said in Lucknow: "The Kalam chapter (is over)."
A distinguished scientist, Kalam has been awarded the Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan and Bharat Ratna, the country's highest civilian award.
He spearheaded the weaponization of India's strategic missile systems, and was involved in the 1998 nuclear tests too.
The presidential election, if it takes place, will be held July 19. The results will be declared three days later.