Day after meeting Sonia, Ajit Singh says Pranab is qualified for job

Ahead of the announcement of the Presidential election schedule next week, Rashtriya Lok Dal chief and Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh described Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee as a “qualified” candidate, while adding that his views on others (without naming them) were equally positive.

“The Finance Minister is qualified for President. My views are positive on him, but my views are positive on others as well,” he told journalists here on Wednesday, responding to a question on the likelihood of Mr. Mukherjee being the United Progressive Alliance's nominee.

Mr. Singh's remark, coming a day after he met Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who kicked off her second round of consultations with UPA partners on Tuesday, raised speculation in political circles on Mr. Mukherjee's chances of making it to Rashtrapati Bhavan, especially as a majority of opposition parties have already indicated their willingness to endorse his candidature if he is named the Congress' official nominee.

Over the next few days Ms. Gandhi will meet leaders of the Nationalist Congress Party, the Trinamool Congress, the National Conference and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Indeed, the DMK's M.K. Stalin, former Tamil Nadu Deputy Chief Minister, flew to Delhi on Wednesday: he is likely to meet Ms. Gandhi on the presidential polls.

In the first round of discussions, DMK supremo M. Karunanidhi — shortly after Defence Minister A.K. Antony met him in early May — told journalists in Chennai that if Mr. Mukherjee was made the Presidential nominee, “the DMK will not hesitate to support his candidature.” He was answering a question whether he would support the Finance Minister if he was fielded as the Congress candidate.

Thus far, only Trinamool chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has dismissed Mr. Mukherjee's name publicly, describing him as a “son of the world” rather than “a son of Bengal,” and suggesting instead the names of Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, the former West Bengal Governor, Gopal Gandhi and the former President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. However, Congress sources pointed out that if the party eventually decided on Mr Mukherjee, Ms. Banerjee might find it difficult not to back him, just as the Shiv Sena had been forced to support Pratibha Patil's candidature six years ago on the Marathi pride plank.

Meanwhile, two other incidents have raised speculation on the possibility of a vacancy coming up in the Finance Ministry — an interview given by Commerce Minister Anand Sharma to the Indian Express, published on Wednesday, in which he takes potshots at Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, and the fact that Home Minister P. Chidambaram, rather than Mr. Mukherjee, has been appointed head of a Group of Ministers to decide on a regulator for the coal sector.

Indeed, ever since talk of Mr. Mukherjee moving to Rashtrapati Bhavan began, there has been conjecture about who his successor could be: Congress sources say that while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh might prefer someone like Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia or Chairman of the PM' Economic Advisory Council C. Rangarajan, the party might insist on a political person. In that case, the sources say, the choice could narrow down to either Mr. Sharma or Mr. Ramesh, as the obvious choice — Mr. Chidambaram — is currently under siege.

Sharma takes dig at Jairam

It is against this backdrop that Mr. Sharma's interview is being read in party circles. In the interview, Mr. Sharma says that while Mr. Ramesh initially opposed 51 % FDI in multibrand retail, he is now supporting it. He also takes issue with Mr. Ramesh's criticism of the government over its reluctance to act tough on subsidies. Mr. Sharma said: “Global fuel prices have been volatile. This issue [cutting subsidies] is politically volatile. Petroleum Minister has had a press conference. Finance Minister has commented. My considered view is that there has to be a targeted approach ... People who make an uninformed comment, particularly those occupying responsible positions, it is primarily on partisan considerations. They should do some homework before taking a political position.”

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