President A P J Abdul Kalam’s changed response to the UNPA’s plea to consider a second term surprised the new eight-party regional alliance as much as the NDA that gave up on his name in the absence of a consensus only a few days ago.
A delegation of UNPA had gone to him on Wednesday was prepared to accept a polite ‘no’ when it was ushered into Kalam’s presence in the Rashtrapati Bhavan. In fact, AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa had even dropped out of the delegation after she gathered Kalam was not inclined to try for a second term without a strong consensus in his favour. Kalam had indicated in so many words to political leaders who had tried to probe his mind following the Third Front’s Chennai conclave on June 18. Led by Chandrababu Naidu (TDP) and Mulayam Singh Yadav (SP), the delegation was taken aback when they finished speaking and it was Kalam to speak, a UNPA leader said.
Without mincing words, Kalam said, “I can accept a second term of Presidency provided there is certainty about this. I am willing to wait for a few days for this certainty.” An AIADMK leader wanted to reach for his cell phone immediately to call up Jayalalithaa and repeat what he had heard Kalam just say.
Another UNPA leader said “by certainty” Kalam did not appear to mean consensus. He said Kalam cited “thousands of e-mail he was getting to show overwhelming love and affection of people from all sections of society and from all parts of the country” for his willingness to accept a second term. Once, Kalam finished speaking, Chandrababu Naidu and Mulayam Singh Yadav smiled at each other, realizing their game place to corner the Congress had worked. In a minute, they decided what they should tell the hungry media outside.
Equally surprised by Kalam’s response, the NDA leaders, however, decided to show they were supportive of the UNPA’s bid for a second term for him.
They saw a possibility of a quid pro quo. If the UNPA cannot build support for Kalam, it should be easy for the alliance to support Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat’s candidature.
Indicating that the NDA was ready to play ball, former PM A B Vajpayee told the Third Front leaders that the BJP leadership would discuss the issue among themselves and with Shekhawat, whom it had decided to back as an independent candidate. L K Advani, Rajnath Singh and Jaswant Singh were present. An NDA meet would be held after after the BJP leaders meet Shekhawat, and after which the Third Front leaders would meet Vajpayee to seek the NDA's decision on their proposal.
Shekhawat had indicated on Monday that he was not averse to withdraw from the race if there was consensus on Kalam. In a bid to drive a wedge in the UPA over Pratibha Patil, BJP’s Sushma Swaraj asked its allies, especially from the south, to clear their stand on Kalam. But the Shiv Sena still remained a BJP problem. A day after Sena chief Bal Thackeray ruled out support to Kalam or Shekhawat, Maharashtra BJP chief Nitin Gadkari reminded the Sena that Pratibha too would toe a soft line towards Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru — a reason by Thackeray to reject Kalam.