External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee is unlikely to be a candidate for the highest constitutional office. The issue was settled at a one-on-one meeting he recently had with Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
The West Bengal veteran’s withdrawal from the race has shifted the spotlight on others on the Congress’s reported shortlist: Home Minister Shivraj Patil, AICC Treasurer Motilal Vora, Power Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, HRD Minister Arjun Singh and Rajya Sabha member Karan Singh.
From available indications, Patil, a central minister since the 1980s, appears emerging as the front-runner, be it on the test of seniority or loyalty. The proof of his proximity to the Congress high command was his induction in the government with the home portfolio despite losing the 2004 Lok Sabha election.
A Congress source told the Hindustan Times: “Mukherjee’s services are indispensable to the government and the party. We simply do not have a replacement for him in the Lower House.”
Mukherjee is leader of the House in the Lok Sabha, heads several subject-specific groups of ministers and is often asked to lead party panels on key questions. His role in the day-to-day functioning of the Congress-led UPA government extends way beyond the foreign affairs portfolio he holds.
Regardless of who eventually emerges as the Congress-UPA's final choice, Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat is all set to make a contest of it. Sources close to him said he planned to enter the fray as an independent after relinquishing office as Vice President.
Strategically, it suits Shekhawat to cut into the non-NDA vote as "people's candidate" rather than that of a party. His move will also put pressure on his rival to demit office if he happens to be a minister.
But the Constitution doesn't bar a sitting Vice President or a Minister from contesting for the Presidency. In 1967, then VP Zakhir Hussain entered the fray as the Congress candidate, defeating Subba Rao.
If they play their cards carefully, the UPA-Left-Bahujan Samaj Party combine can ensure the victory of their joint candidate with the over one lakh vote margin they have in the 11 lakh strong electoral-college in the aftermath of the assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh and Goa.
In informal discussions, the Congress, with the objective of forestalling the cross-voting on which Shekhawat is banking, has let it be known to its allies and supporters that the UPA regime's continuation will become untenable in the event of its defeat in the presidential polls. The signal, sources claimed, would force even the likes of Samajwadi Party to reflect on the consequences of a mid-term general election from which the BSP might benefit.
And the Left's predicament in their shaky citadels of Bengal and Kerala might be the same as that of the SP's in UP.