Though stumped by the Third Front's decision to name President APJ Abdul Kalam after it formally announced support for Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat as an independent candidate, the NDA held hopes of the Front eventually supporting Shekhawat in some manner against UPA nominee Pratibha Patil.
The BJP and NDA leaders said they stood by their decision to support Shekhawat, and would appeal to the Third Front to back him.
The NDA's strategy is to let Shekhawat -- as an independent candidate -- garner greater support outside the alliance, including from the UPA.
The BJP particulalry addressed the Third Front's concern about losing "secular" credentials by voting for Shekhawat, saying that he had snapped ties with the BJP as soon as he became Vice President five years ago.
The NDA leaders also recalled that President Kalam had earlier turned down the Opposition alliance's plea to enter the fight as their nominee. He had indicated then that he would be willing only to be the consensus choice of all parties.
Consequently, former Prime Minister AB Vajpayee had announced on May 22 that he had conveyed to Kalam that a consensus could not be evolved on a second term for him.
BJP's Sushma Swaraj said, "We stand by the NDA's decision to support Shekhawat and will appeal to the Third Front to back him."
Swaraj said the NDA did not name Kalam as its candidate because he had declined to contest. She described Kalam as the NDA's first choice for presidency but the alliance too shared his views that he should make no bid for a second-term unless there was a consensus.
"We too believe that a sitting president should not contest elections but should get another term through consensus," she said.
Swaraj insisted Shekhawat would be able to succeed in his bid for the Rashtrapati Bhavan, citing his stature and popularity. "We are not kids. This is a presidential election. Why would Vajpayee say in the NDA resolution that his (Shekhawat)'s victory is definite?" she said when asked about the chances of his success following the Third Front's move.
Denying that the NDA was counting on Shekhawat's ability to make MPs and MLAs "cross vote", she said presidential candidates were free to reach out to more than one million voters irrespective of their party affiliations.
Earlier in the day, Vajpayee read out a statement that Shekhawat was the "most qualified and suitable candidate for the high office."
Speaking after a meeting of NDA leaders at his residence, Vajpayee alluded to the Left's condition that a presidential candidate needed to be totally secular.
He said: "A public figure of eminence, high repute, unmatched credentials, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat has discharged his latest responsibilities as the country's Vice President and Chairman of the Rajya Sabha entirely beyond party affiliations and with impeccable secular credentials."
Vajpayee said Shekhawat combined a lifetime's experience of dedicated public service with rare qualities of head and heart. "The NDA is unanimously of the view that Shekhawat as a non-party and an independent candidate would be the most appropriate choice."
NDA convenor George Fernandes said he would be able to emerge victorious, saying arithmetic is not always static. "We know where we are. The numbers will come," he said. Later, Swaraj and JD(U) leader Digvijay Singh, a close associate of the Vice President, met Shekhawat to convey the NDA's decision.
Even though Sena's representative Manohar Joshi attended the meeting, Shiv Sena executive president Uddhav Thackeray said, "We have conveyed to the NDA that we are still in the process of taking a decision on whom to back."
It will be the first time after the 1969 polls that a Vice President would be contesting as an independent candidate. VV Giri was the candidate at that time and he defeated Congress official nominee Neelam Sanjiva Reddy.