Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee smiled when asked today about his being a likely candidate for President and said, "Oh my goodness, don't indulge in speculation." The Congress is reportedly zeroing in on either him or current Vice President Hamid Ansari. Many parties have indicated that Mr Mukherjee could be a universally acceptable choice, but not the BJP, which says it will not support a political leader from the Congress. (Vote here: Who will be India's next President?)
In a move seen as the main Opposition party laying down some ground rules as the ruling Congress makes the first move to build consensus around a candidate, the BJP's Sushma Swaraj also said her party would not do a swap deal - which would essentially mean a mutual understanding that the Congress would get to choose the President and the BJP, the Vice-President.
Neither the Congress-led UPA, nor the BJP-led NDA has a majority in the electoral college that elects the President. So both sides will have to try and win support to put their candidate in the Rashtrapati Bhawan. The Congress has an advantage - it has 41 per cent of the college and needs to make up about nine per cent for a majority. The BJP only has about 28 per cent, and needs much more support.
Regional parties hold the key. So the Congress is walking a political tightrope as it tries to create a consensus with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) on the bench and the Trinamool saying that it will wait till the poll dates are announced. The Trinamool's support is crucial for the victory of a UPA candidate.
The BJP is eyeing the same parties - Sushma Swaraj said a second stint for the Samajwadi Party's stated first choice, APJ Abdul Kalam had her party's "conditional yes." "If the SP supports his name, we will support him," Ms Swaraj said. She also said her party was ready to talk to Congress allies NCP and Trinamool on fielding a joint candidate.
One ally that has assured the Congress of its support to any candidate it picks is the DMK. Senior DMK leader TKS Elangovan confirmed that his party would back the Congress' choice for the post, though party leader M Karunanidhi today refused to divulge names discussed with the Congress.
In a departure from norm, it was the UPA's trusted lieutenant, Defence Minister AK Antony and not Mr Mukherjee, who met DMK Chief M Karunanidhi at his CIT Colony residence I Chennai yesterday to discuss the presidential elections. Mr Antony's presence fuelled the speculation that Mr Mukherjee might be on the list the Congress was considering for Rashtrapati Bhawan.
Mr Antony described his meeting in Chennai as "fruitful". The DMK has 18 Lok Sabha MPs, 7 Rajya Sabha MPs and 23 MLAs, all of whom will vote.
Sources point out that Pranab Mukherjee, a tall Bengal leader, will be a difficult candidate for the Trinamool to reject. He is also one Congressman who enjoys good relations with Opposition parties. Even the CPM's Basudev Acharya admitted, "Pranab is no doubt a good candidate," though he did qualify that his party had not discussed the issue yet.
SS Dhindsa of the Shiromani Akali Dal, a BJP ally, said, "Pranab is a very nice person. But a decision on whom to support can only be taken by my party in consultation with NDA."
The RJD's Lalu Yadav has already said he'd like to see Hamid Ansari as President but made clear, "we are not against anyone." Shahid Siddiqui of the Samjawadi Party, which the Congress hopes will add its considerable weight behind its candidate, said, "The SP wants that the next President should be selected after taking opinion of all political parties...If I say Pranab is a good candidate then it would lead to speculation."
The President is elected by members of the Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha and all state legislatures or Vidhan Sabhas by a system of proportional representation through single transferable vote. The ballot paper lists all candidates standing for election and the voters list them in order of preference. A threshold number of votes, known as the 'quota' is set, which candidates have to achieve to be elected. For presidential elections, the quota is set at one more than half the number of votes.
The election is designed to provide parity between members of parliament and members of state assemblies. The number of MLAs or elected representatives in state assemblies depends on the population of that state. The presidential election assigns a weightage to the votes cast by each state, so that finally, the states have an equal say with Parliament in who becomes President. Without this system, the President would be elected purely on the basis of the party or group that has the maximum numbers in Parliament.