For all its loss of face over allowing the mercurial Mamata Banerjee to seize the initiative on the presidential election, the Congress has finally done the right thing in announcing Pranab Mukherjee as the UPA's choice to succeed Pratibha Patil. Mr. Mukherjee's stature, unequalled experience, easy command of a range of subjects, not to mention his understanding of constitutional history and practice, make him uniquely qualified to enter Rashtrapati Bhawan. The Union Finance Minister has been the clear frontrunner for President, and not simply because the ruling UPA appeared likely to endorse his candidature. Mr. Mukherjee is respected across the political spectrum, confirmation of which came within minutes of his nomination in the form of support from the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. The Left parties should also come on board judging by their comfort level with Mr. Mukherjee. Besides, there is no other candidate that they can back given their ideological opposition to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. Though no game is won until it is won, the Congress appears to have sewn up the presidential contest with its biggest breakthrough being the conquest of the SP, which returned to the fold after a brief display of brinkmanship politics in the company of Ms Banerjee.
So, why did the Congress delay the consultation process to a point where Ms Banerjee virtually ran away with the agenda? The West Bengal Chief Minister heaped indignities on the offices of the President and Prime Minister and set an unacceptable ultimatum to the UPA on her choice of candidates. But instead of calling her bluff rightaway, the Congress inexplicably took recourse to silence, allowing all manner of players a free hand to exploit the situation. Yet when the same party finally displayed leadership qualities and summoned a meeting on the presidency, the results were spectacular. The UPA allies lined up behind Mr. Mukherjee, enabling other parties to join in. Ms Banerjee, whose actions almost derailed the UPA leading to speculation about early general elections, was left isolated. The NDA, which had hoped to gain from the fissures in the UPA, turned out to be itself a divided house, with consensus eluding the alliance on both Abdul Kalam and Purno Sangma. The former President will not enter a contest and Mr. Sangma does not even have the support of the Nationalist Congress Party of which he is a member. The lesson on presidency learnt, the Congress must now start consultations for Vice-President, keeping in mind the natural claim and excellent credentials of Hamid Ansari, the current incumbent.