Countdown begins, presidential poll on July 19
The Election Commission announced Tuesday that the presidential election would be held July 19, setting the ball rolling for the process to decide on who would be the next occupant of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. All eyes are now on Congress chief Sonia Gandhi who will take the final call on the ruling UPA's candidate.
While union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has emerged front-runner, there is no clarity on who would be the United Progressive Alliance's choice for the post. Suspense has been mounting and there have been hectic consultations between leaders of various political parties but no names have been thrown up.
The only declared candidate is former Lok Sabha speaker P.A. Sangma of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), who has been actively lobbying for support amongst opposition parties.
Chief Election Commissioner V.S. Sampath said the elections would be notified June 16, be held on July 19 and the votes counted on July 22, just two days before President Pratibha Patil's term ends.
As the tempo built up, the Congress let out little and only said that there were no differences amongst the allies. "We have repeatedly demonstrated that UPA is united and cohesive," said party spokesperson Manish Tewari.
It is being hoped that the wait for the UPA's 'consensus' candidate ends Wednesday when Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee meets Gandhi. She told reporters in Kolkata before leaving for the national capital that Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Mulayam Singh Yadav would be present as well.
As soon as she reached New Delhi, Banerjee rushed to Yadav's residence.
"Discussions happened. I am meeting Sonia Gandhi (tomorrow) and then I will come here again," she told reporters after her 20-minute-long talks with Yadav.
The Manmohan Singh-led government, which has for weeks been trying to balance interests of its often troublesome allies, is hoping to resolve differences with the Trinamool and SP, who have the maximum numbers and are crucial for the Congress candidate to win.
Asked to comment on speculation that Mukherjee, the government's most senior minister and trouble-shooter for all seasons, was the front-runner in becoming the Congress candidate, she said: "This is an issue for the Congress."
She also denied that her backing for the Congress' choice for the post was linked to a financial package for her state.
Banerjee had earlier indicated that she was not in favour of Mukherjee, who has cancelled his visit to Afghanistan fuelling conjecture that the choice would narrow down to only him.
Sources admit that if Mukherjee is indeed the chosen one, Banerjee would find it difficult to oppose him - if elected, he would be the first Bengali in the presidential palace.
SP chief Mulayam Singh has been of the same view. He told reporters Monday that he wanted the Congress to first announce its candidate. Asked about Mukherjee, he said: "I do not know who is the candidate. When a candidate is declared, we will decide."
Another key ally, the NCP, indicated that Mukherjee could well be the man for the top post.
"India's president will be acceptable to all. He will be a senior most person who will be congratulated by the entire country," senior NCP leader D.P. Tripathi said. Interestingly, NCP has not backed Sangma.
If all goes well and there is consensus amongst allies in the UPA, the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) will have little say.
In the jockeying for power, the BJP-led NDA was believed to be pushing for its own person for the post of vice president.
Talk was that the party might choose senior leader Jaswant Singh for the job. The buzz was heightened with Jaswant Singh meeting Mulayam Singh at his residence.
"All the constituents of the NDA would join their heads to decide their stand over the matter in the coming days," Akali Dal leader and Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal said.
Given the uncertainty, the final name could well be a dark-horse. Either way, the government will have to reveal its choice for India's 13th president before Saturday.