Pranab Mukherjee appears set to be the next President with his candidature announced today by the ruling UPA and endorsed swiftly by supporting parties SP and BSP amid indications that he will gather more support ahead.
The 77-year-old veteran Congress leader, currently finance minister with 43 years of parliamentary experience, was named by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi at a meeting of the leaders of the Congress and the alliance partners, including DMK, RLD, NCP, NC and IUML.
Within minutes, SP, which had joined hands with TMC leader Mamata Banerjee to propose the name of APJ Abdul Kalam for the post, broke away and pledged support to Mukherjee, leaving the West Bengal Chief Minister totally isolated.
This was followed by another major Uttar Pradesh party BSP, whose supremo Mayawati also extended her support, which will take Mukherjee close to the required vote value of 5.49 lakh in an electoral college consisting of MPs and MLAs with a total vote value of 10.98 lakh.
Even counting out TMC, which has a vote value of 48,000, Mukherjee is short of just about 26,000 vote value which is expected to be made up by other parties that may include the Left.
Immediately after being chosen, Mukherjee expressed his gratitude to Sonia Gandhi and the other UPA leaders for the honour which he accepted with "all humility".
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh lost no time in reaching out to other parties including the BJP to seek support for Mukherjee. After speaking to SP supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati, he called up BJP leaders in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley respectively.
A question mark now hangs over the candidacy of Kalam with only Mamata still pushing his name. Indications are he may not agree to contest, making it a virtual cakewalk for Mukherjee.
Pranab Mukherjee on Friday sought the support of Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee in the July 19 elections describing her as his sister.
"I also seek the support of Mamata Banerjee because she is like my sister," Mukherjee told reporters on being asked whether his appeal to political parties to back his candidature included Banerjee's Trinamool Congress.
The BJP-led NDA met earlier but failed to come up with a candidate amid reports that JD(U) had reservations over Kalam being supported. Whether the NDA would chose to contest with its own candidate remained a matter of conjecture.
The only other candidate P A Sangma was still insisting on contesting, recalling that he has been supported by AIADMK leader Jayalalitha and BJD chief Naveen Patnaik. His own party NCP, though, was pressing him to withdraw which he was stubbornly refusing to do.
Refusing to see writing on the wall, mercurial TMC chief Mamata continued to insist tonight that she was firm on Kalam's candidature.
Her own party's future in UPA alliance, after her revolt and the embarrassment caused by her to the Congress, remained uncertain. Whether UPA will jettison TMC or whether the West Bengal party will quit to save face was being debated in political circles.
Yadav was hard put to explain his volte face in supporting Mukherjee, two days after proposing the names of Manmohan Singh, Kalam and former Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, in the presence of Mamata.
Overnight rumours that Congress was succeeding in breaking up the TMC-SP combine came true minutes after Mukherjee's name was announced and SP chief's brother and General Secretary Ramgopal Yadav pledging support to the UPA candidate.
Mulayam Singh struggled to fend off queries from reporters and repeatedly said he agreed with his brother's announcement of support to Mukherjee whom he described as "very experienced and most able". The country needs a leader like Mukherjee in Rashtrapati Bhawan, he said.