In the first indication of support outside the NDA block, AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa and Samajwadi Party (SP) general secretary Amar Singh spoke to the Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat on Friday, indicating their plans to back his candidature for the Presidential polls.
Both the leaders conveyed their parties’ unwillingness to back UPA nominee Pratibha Patil. A decision on backing Shekhawat would be taken at their conclave in Chennai on June 18, they said.
But the NDA’s main worry continues to be the Shiv Sena, which commands 28,000 votes. Some Sena leaders are wary of opposing Patil who is seen as a Maharashtra leader. Others do not want the party to go against NDA. Sonia will take a final call on the matter on June 19.
Besides Jayalalithaa, who is hosting the conclave, SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, TDP boss Chandrababu Naidu, and Indian National Lok Dal president Om Prakash Chautala, and the head of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) are weighing options of supporting Shekhawat, his aides said.
Jayalalithaa has called a meeting of her party’s executive on Saturday on the issue.
The regional grouping was initially keen on supporting Left parties if they chose to field a candidate. With the Left and the Congress agreeing on Pratibha Patil, an option was stated to either field a candidate as a token contest or abstain from voting as they would not like to be seen as backing the Congress.
These regional parties together have a voting strength of 1.20 lakh in the electoral college of over 10.9 lakhs for the Presidential poll.
On its part, the BJP-led NDA has been counting on the third front to support Shekhawat and avoid putting up a candidate of its own. In the case of the latter, it wants the second preference votes should go to Shekhawat. The issue figured in the meeting between JD(U) chief Sharad Yadav and former PM A.B. Vajpayee. Yadav wanted the NDA to reach a pact with the third front.
BJP strategists say though Pratibha may be assured of much more than half the votes of the electoral college, independent MLAs and MPs, who account for 72,000 votes, and 45 MPs belonging to the UPA could upset its plans because of Shekhawat’s candidature.
“By fielding Patil, Sonia Gandhi has shown that after a captive PM, she is attempting to have a subservient President,” said BJP’s Ravi Shankar Prasad. The NDA has 3.40 lakh votes while the UPA has 5.70 lakh votes.
“Depending on the developments, we will take a decision on June 18,” TDP Parliamentary Party leader K Yerran Naidu said in Hyderabad.
The NDA, which has already authorised Vajpayee to decide the candidate, is meeting on Monday to finalise its strategy after the Third Front’s formal decision.
Meanwhile, former prime minister Chandra Shekhar endorsed Shekhawat’s candidature, saying he deserved “support from all”.
Chandra Shekhar, a Rajput leader himself, said Shekhawat was “a public figure of eminence, high repute, impeccable credentials” who has discharged his latest responsibilities as the country's Vice President entirely beyond party affiliations. He deserves support from all.”
Shiromani Akali Dal leader and Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal had a meeting with Shekhawat on Friday, pledging to do his party’s best to enable him win the polls.