Pranab cancels visit to Kabul; election scheduled for July 19
A day after her Finance Minister Amit Mitra met Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee to seek a financial package for West Bengal, Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee arrived in New Delhi on Tuesday night.
Sources in the Congress said party president Sonia Gandhi had invited her on the phone to discuss the presidential elections. The meeting between the two leaders is scheduled for Wednesday evening as part of Ms. Gandhi's efforts at clinching a political consensus on a candidate.
Meanwhile, the Election Commission announced that the presidential election, if need be, would held on July 19. Counting of votes will be taken up on July 22. The notification will be issued on June 16.
Before leaving Kolkata, Ms. Banerjee told journalists that she was waiting for the Congress to declare its candidate. “It is the Congress's matter, let them name the candidate. I have some acquaintances in Delhi like Mulayam Singh Yadav, whom I will meet.”
Meanwhile, sources in the Trinamool Congress indicated that on Monday, Mr. Mukherjee had told Mr. Mitra what was possible by way of a financial package, and this was conveyed to Ms. Banerjee. The sources added that it was for Ms. Banerjee to accept or not what is on offer, but she was going to make another attempt at getting the amount increased.
Of course, on Monday, Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari officially rejected the suggestion that there could be a financial package in exchange for the Trinamool's support for the Congress' presidential candidate. But Congress sources simultaneously acknowledged that negotiations and bargaining were part of the political process. For Ms. Banerjee, a handsome bailout is key to her political future, as she inherited a State deep in debt when she came to power a year ago.
Intriguingly, Channel 10 in Kolkata — believed to be pro-Trinamool — suggested on Tuesday that Ms. Banerjee favoured the former Lok Sabha Speaker, Somnath Chatterjee, as President, evidently a counter to Mr. Mukherjee, his fellow Bengali, and a suggestion aimed at annoying the Left parties. Trinamool sources added that party MP Kunal Ghosh, CEO of the Sarada Goup that owns Channel 10, has accompanied Ms. Bannerjee to Delhi.
In another development, Mr. Mukherjee called off a visit to Kabul scheduled for June 14, triggering reports that he needs to be in Delhi this week. The Finance Minister was to stand in for External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna — who is in Washington to attend the India-U.S. strategic dialogue — at a regional conference in the Afghan capital. The trip was cancelled after a meeting he had with Ms. Gandhi on Monday night.
Thus far, United Progressive Alliance allies such as the DMK, the NCP and the Rashtriya Lok Dal have indicated that they would be happy to back Mr. Mukherjee's candidature, should the Congress nominate him. And Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav has said he would prefer a politician to be in Rashtrapati Bhavan.
It is only the Trinamool — among the UPA allies with a significant number of votes — that has kept its own counsel so far. At a time when a political consensus, and not merely in the UPA, appears to be emerging around the name of Mr. Mukherjee — with only an occasional mention of Vice-President Hamid Ansari, who top Congress sources say remains in the race — the Trinamool's support is critical.
Of the 10,98, 882 votes in the electoral college that votes for the President, the UPA, with 4,60,191 votes, has 42 per cent of the pie. Of this, the Trinamool's share is 48,049 votes. If a united UPA secures the support of the SP (68, 812 votes) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (43, 349 votes), its candidate can win, in case the Opposition fields a candidate, or backs the former Lok Sabha Speaker, P.A. Sangma (who has the support of the AIADMK and the Biju Janata Dal).
However, if the Trinamool does not vote with the UPA, the Congress would need the support of the four Left parties as well: while the Trinamool has 48,049 votes, the Left has 51,682 votes. Of course, if the Trinamool chooses not to back the Congress candidate, it will mean it does not wish to continue in the UPA. For, unlike its opposition to foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail, this would have political implications.