“It's turning out to be a family affair but no question of withdrawing from the fight.” That's how Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat is understood to have reacted to the UPA-Left combine's announcement of Pratibha Patil's candidature for the Presidential election.
Even as he exuded confidence, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi called up former prime minister A B Vajpayee to seek his support for Patil. The PM also spoke to L K Advani and Janata Dal chief Sharad Yadav. But Vajpayee told both of them that a consensus on Patil was not possible as the UPA had announced her name without consulting the opposition.
BJP's deputy leader in Lok Sabha VK Malhotra criticised the PM and the Congress, saying that “this is not the way to seek consensus. You have announced the candidate's name and now want support of other parties. Besides, Pratibha’s name was last on the list of names. It only shows that Sonia Gandhi could not have her way in nominating a loyalist.” Malhotra, a key NDA strategist, said, “Pratibha is the weakest candidate. The person who has our support will win."
Sources close to Shekhawat said he was determined to enter the battle even though Pratibha's husband, Devisingh Ramsingh Shekhawat, hails from a village 20 km away from his.
Shekhawat did not think that the Congress' bid to play the Rajput card or the 'first woman President’ aspect of her candidature would cut much ice in the present political scenario, they said.
Patil is a Maratha, hailing from Maharashtra, while her husband is of Rajasthani descent. She married Shekhawat after becoming an MLA in Maharashtra in 1962 but retained her maiden name.
NCP leader Sharad Pawar insisted while talking to reporters that the UPA's nominee be called ‘Pratibha Patil Shekhawat’ to drive home the point that she also has a Rajasthani connection. Pawar's remarks drew peals of laughter from reporters.
Incidentally, no one from Maharashtra or Rajasthan has ever become the President. This seems to have softened NDA ally Shiv Sena. The Sena said it was not as opposed to her as to Shivraj Patil. It said the final decision would be taken by party chief Bal Thackeray. The Sena has 28,000 votes in the electoral college. "With Patil, we had serious reservations, but Pratibhaji is a veteran leader and a non-controversial figure, so there may not be that kind of opposition to her," Sena MP Sanjay Raut said.
With Pratibha's name as the UPA candidate cropping up after several others, Leader of Opposition L K Advani took a dig at the ruling coalition: “Never in the history of the country has there been one dozen names floating around as possible candidates of the ruling party. What kind of a situation is this?”