Manmohan is our Prime Minister, says party
At the end of a day consumed by the Congress spokespersons trying to control the damage caused by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's audacious suggestions for the presidency, the party managers negotiating behind the scenes, and its leader Sonia Gandhi conferring with colleagues, friends and allies, members of the Congress Core Group went into a huddle.
The Congress' top leaders, who had gathered at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's 7 Race Course residence on Thursday evening, party sources indicated, narrowed down their first choice to Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee — and this was the name that would, in all likelihood, be placed at a meeting of top leaders of the United Progressive Alliance called for Friday. Their second choice is Vice-President Hamid Ansari.
This came after UPA allies, Union Agriculture Minister and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK) leader T.R. Baalu met Ms. Gandhi separately to assure her of their parties' support for the Congress candidate. The party has also summoned all UPA Chief Ministers to the capital to prepare them to mobilise legislators. The BJP, too, has called a meeting of the National Democratic Alliance for Friday.
The effort, top Congress sources added, was to announce the name of the UPA's candidate before Dr. Singh leaves on Saturday for the G-20 Summit in Mexico, followed by the climate negotiations in Rio.
A day after Ms Banerjee's googly stunned it into silence, a goaded Congress worked overtime to staunch the bleeding and get back into shape for its next battle — getting its candidate elected President, affirming its faith in Dr. Singh, and sending the message out that the party was in charge of its own fortunes. And though the Congress officially said the Trinamool “was still a UPA ally,” it declared war on its leader, Ms. Banerjee, with senior party functionaries indicating that the two parties could be heading for a divorce.
Ms. Gandhi spent the day holding a series of meetings: her first visitor was Mr. Mukherjee, followed by Defence Minister A.K. Antony, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, old party hands R.K. Dhawan and Makhan Lal Fotedar, Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh, Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni and party media chairperson Janardan Dwivedi.
What emerged from Ms. Gandhi's conversations with her colleagues was that the party needed to swiftly end the confusion over both Dr. Singh's status and the party's presidential candidate. Wednesday's events had not just caused confusion, but eroded the authority of the Congress president and violated the dignity of the Prime Minister. That impression needed to be corrected.
Around noon, Mr. Dwivedi made it clear that the Prime Minister wasn't going anywhere. “Dr. Manmohan Singh cannot be spared,” he said, adding he would remain the Prime Minister till 2014. He simultaneously rejected the other names suggested for President by Ms. Banerjee and Mulayam Singh Yadav: the former President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, and the former Lok Sabha Speaker, Somnath Chatterjee. He also stressed that there should be some sanctity about a private conversation between two senior leaders, referring to Ms.Banerjee disclosing the names of the Congress' two choices.
If Mr. Dwivedi chose his words carefully, Ms. Soni targeted Ms Banerjee directly, saying her behaviour “doesn't make political or ethical sense,” and showed a lack of courtesy for a man who was heading the government. “Never has there been an instance in which the name of a sitting PM is bandied about like this.” Government sources said Dr. Singh was very upset, and he looked very grim at Thursday's Cabinet meeting.
But while party leaders underscored the fact that Ms. Banerjee's choices would not be considered, the two names that emerged from the discussions Ms. Gandhi had with UPA partners — Mr. Mukherjee and Mr. Ansari — were still on the table.
Mr. Mukherjee, who looked tired at Thursday's Cabinet meeting, also worked the phones, calling up the former West Bengal Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, and senior CPI(M) leader Biman Bose. Reports suggest he sought the Left support for his candidature.