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NDA awaits UPA decision as Shekhawat starts canvassing

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CLERICS' SUPPORT: Maulana Jamil Ahmed Iliyasi (second right), president of the All-India Imam Organisation, and other imams pray during a meeting with Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat in New Delhi on Tuesday. They urged political parties to back him for presidency .
CLERICS' SUPPORT: Maulana Jamil Ahmed Iliyasi (second right), president of the All-India Imam Organisation, and other imams pray during a meeting with Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat in New Delhi on Tuesday. They urged political parties to back him for presidency .

Neena Vyas

Shekhawat has virtually pre-empted NDA, little room for manoeuvre

NEW DELHI: National Democratic Alliance leaders will meet at the residence of the former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee here on Wednesday to discuss the presidential elections. However, indications are that no decision on a candidate will be taken until it becomes clear who the UPA nominee is.

What has complicated matters for the NDA is the fact that Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat has virtually announced his candidature. He has already started canvassing, meeting leaders of NDA parties individually and leaders of non-NDA parties as well.

On Tuesday he drove to Mr. Vajpayee's residence, where BJP leaders Rajnath Singh, L.K. Advani and Jaswant Singh were meeting to finalise a strategy ahead of Wednesday's NDA meeting.

Senior BJP leaders have been pointing out that with Mr. Shekhawat keen on contesting, the BJP has little choice except supporting him as he is a senior party leader. Mr. Shekhawat has virtually pre-empted the NDA and left little room for Mr. Vajpayee, as NDA chairman and key decision-making authority, to manoeuvre.

BJP leader Sushma Swaraj already stated the strategy so far was to allow Mr. Shekhawat to run as an independent. The hope was that this would help him garner non-NDA votes.

However, now it seems the NDA will have to grapple with keeping its house united. If there is no official NDA candidate, alliance partners may take their own independent decisions rather than vote together.

Janata Dal (United) president Sharad Yadav went to meet Mr. Vajpayee on Tuesday evening ahead of the meeting of the BJP leaders, where Mr. Shekhawat was also present. Later he revealed that no names had been discussed. He said the NDA would reveal its card only after the United Progressive Alliance declared its candidate. "We have to see then what efforts the UPA makes to build consensus and only after that would the question of an NDA candidate arise," he told The Hindu.

Mr. Yadav, who met Mr. Vajpayee alone, also hinted that the NDA could consider joining hands with the third front, which was floating the name of National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah. This has further complicated matters for Mr. Vajpayee, who is believed to have virtually promised the President's position to Dr. Abdullah.

Already hints have come from the Shiv Sena camp that if the UPA candidate is a Maharashtrian Home Minister Shivraj Patil or Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde the regional outfit would feel obliged to vote for the son of the soil. The point is being made with emphasis that Independent India has not yet seen a Maharashtrian in the two top jobs of President and Prime Minister. Regional loyalty may prove stronger than the NDA-should-stand-united factor, especially if Mr. Shekhawat were to stand as an independent.

The BJP is also not very certain about the stance of the Janata Dal (Secular). Strictly speaking, the JD(S) is not part of the NDA, but simply an alliance partner in Karnataka for purposes of sharing power. Some BJP leaders believe that Deve Gowda's party may also support Mr. Patil if he emerges as the UPA choice.

After firm indications from Bahujan Samaj Party leader and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati that her party would support the UPA candidate, some senior BJP leaders admitted there was little chance of Mr. Shekhawat being able to pull off a victory with the help of cross voting. "If he depends heavily on the `Thakur' factor to get votes across party lines, there will necessarily be a reaction to this kind of caste loyalty leading to cross-voting in the opposite direction," one BJP leader said.

Muslim leaders' plea

PTI reports:

A delegation of Muslim leaders on Tuesday met Mr. Shekhawat and urged all political parties to make him the unanimous choice for the top post.

Maulana Jamil Ahmed Iliyasi, president of the All-India Imam Organisation, who led the delegation, said in a press release that Mr. Shekhawat rightly deserved to be the President.

``He is an exceptional statesman of towering stature who is loved by all, irrespective of their caste, creed or religion,'' he said.

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