The suspense over who will be the Congress's Presidential candidate might continue for a while longer: top party sources have said the name is likely to be announced only after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh returns from the G-20 summit in Mexico and the climate conference in Rio on June 23. This will give the Congress leadership some more time to confer with allies, friends and others to try and achieve the widest possible consensus.
Meanwhile, all eyes on Monday were on West Bengal Finance Minister Amit Mitra's meeting with Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, as it came against the backdrop of Chief Minister — and Trinamool Congress chief — Mamata Banerjee repeatedly conveying the fact that she was opposed to Mr. Mukherjee, still regarded as the frontrunner, being made the Congress's Presidential candidate.
The discussions in Mr. Mukherjee's North Block office centred round the financial bailout package that West Bengal has been demanding ever since Ms. Banerjee came to power a year ago, as its debt of Rs. 2 lakh crore translates into an annual outgo of around Rs. 22,000 crore in interest payments. However, Monday's meeting appeared not to yield any concrete result. Emerging from the meeting, Mr. Mitra told journalists, “Discussions are going on. When discussions are completed, we will speak to the Chief Minister, Ms. Mamata Banerjee.”
But hours after Mr. Mitra's confabulations with Mr. Mukherjee, the Congress indicated that the cash-strapped State could be bailed out, but rejected the suggestion that it would be a quid pro quo on the eve of the Presidential polls. “If a State… in financial distress … reaches out to the Central government, wants certain concessions, that is not a quid pro quo for supporting or not supporting a particular political initiative or an election which may be coming up,” Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari said, responding to a question on the subject. “These are two separate issues. They move on parallel tracks and parallel tracks do not meet,” he said firmly.
Mr. Tewari also recalled that the Finance Commission had two years ago spoken of the weak financial condition of West Bengal, Punjab and Kerala, and said this needed to be addressed. Later, Congress sources said that if West Bengal was given a financial package, then Punjab and Kerala, too, might benefit as well. “We will have to deal with this holistically, all three or none. It will depend on how much flexibility there is in the economy,” these sources said, adding, “Negotiating and bargaining are part of the political process.”
Monday's meeting also comes in the wake of the Congress' West Bengal unit making a strong pitch to the Trinamool to support Mr Mukherjee for President. State Irrigation Minister — and ex-Congress' West Bengal chief — Manas Bhunia, told journalists in Kolkata that though discussions were still on and the choice of presidential nominee had been left to the party high command, “we feel Mr. Mukherjee is the most suitable choice for the post.” He also said that the silence of the Trinamool on this was causing concern to the State unit and so, “I appeal to them and their supremo [Ms. Banerjee] to support Mr. Mukherjee for President.” Mr. Bhunia's remarks came shortly after Mr Mukherjee indicated he was interested in the post of President while on a visit to West Bengal, but said it was for the party to decide.
Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh also demanded an economic package for Uttar Pradesh. “The situation [in Uttar Pradesh] is bad after the misrule of the previous [Mayawati] government. That is why we want the maximum financial assistance,” Mr. Yadav told journalists, adding that Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav had already met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in this regard.