After a meeting with the Prime Minister, Mamata Banerjee has refused to give the Congress the reassurances it was hoping for. Ms Banerjee, an unpredictable ally, has said that "all options are open" when it comes to deciding who she will support as a candidate for the election for President of India. She also emphasized that she remains stridently opposed to the proposed National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), a new agency blueprinted by the government that has upset several chief ministers like her.
Ms Banerjee's meeting with Dr Manmohan Singh was targeted at winning a moratorium on the 22 thousand crores that West Bengal owes the Centre every year as interest on loans granted through the years. "I didn't ask for a development package," she said, "I asked for justice." While she refused to comment on the PM's response, she said, "Half-hearted measures won't do" and said she will "wait for a few days" for the government's response before deciding her "future course of action."
How the government handles the bailout package for West Bengal could influence Ms Banerjee's support for a candidate selected by the Congress for the elections for president, which will be held in June. She said the poll is "still two months away...let them tell us...then we will give our opinion." She also refused to comment on whether she will endorse Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee for President. The Congress has reportedly short-listed Mr Mukherjee and Vice-President Hamid Ansari, and is discussing them with allies to arrive at a consensus.
Mr Mukherjee appears to be the preferred choice of Mulayam Singh Yadav, the head of the Samajawadi Party, which provides external support to the UPA. Today, he said, "It does not matter whether the Presidential candidate is from minority community, backward or scheduled caste." Yesterday, he said he would like to see "a political person" as President. Both remarks are being interpreted as support for Mr Mukherjee.
Mr Mukherjee has denied that he is emerging as the first choice of the Congress and its allies. "It is speculative. I don't want to comment on it," the Finance Minister told reporters on his way to Manila where he will attend the 45th Annual Meeting of Asian Development Bank's Board of Governors.
Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party, another partner in the UPA, today said that no names have been shared with him by the Congress and that his party has therefore not taken a decision on the presidential election. While Mr Pawar would not speculate on names, another UP ally Ajit Singh said, "We have no objection to whoever the Congress decides on. Pranab Mukherjee is a good candidate. Hamid Ansari too is an able administrator."
It is Ms Banerjee who has proven herself to be the unpredictable ally, capable of taking on the Congress publicly over major policy decisions. She remains opposed to the new National Counter Terrorism Centre or NCTC, whose mandate has provoked furious criticism from non-Congress states. Ms Banerjee has been among its most vocal critics, accusing it of having powers that undermine federalism and autonomy of state governments like hers. A meeting headed by Home Minister P Chidambaram is aimed at winning over chief ministers like Ms Banerjee and Naveen Patnaik of Odisha, and Jayalalithaa of Tamil Nadu. The government has, in response to their opposition, diluted the powers of search and arrest for officials of the NCTC. Now, they will have to keep state police officers and anti-terror squads in the loop.