Cornered over the presidential election by allies who turned on it with full force, the Congress is trying to rally its troops. The core group of the party is meeting this evening to discuss its candidate for President. Congress chief ministers have been asked to come to Delhi to share their opinion. And a meeting of the UPA, the coalition headed by the Congress, is scheduled for tomorrow.
Mamata Banerjee, the UPA member who has created the perfect storm with another UPA ally, Mulayam Singh Yadav, may skip that meeting.
And so the Presidential election that has turned into a test of the Prime Minister's authority, the loyalty of his allies, and the premise that general elections will be held in 2014. (Read: Who will be the President? Why so much rides on this)
Ms Banerjee was accused today by the Congress of betraying political and ethical boundaries. Firstly, the Congress said, she went public with confidential details of her meeting with UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. Secondly, she suggested with Mr Yadav, that the Prime Minister be moved to President - a humiliating signal that they no longer want him to steer the coalition. (Read: 'Allies' Mulayam-Mamata taunt Congress, suggest PM for President, reject Pranab Mukherjee)
Ms Banerjee's party, the Trinamool Congress, retorted this evening that she did not cross any line and that she had been authorized by Mrs Gandhi to share the outcome of their session.
It was only at 1 pm today that the Congress responded to categorically state that the Prime Minster isn't going anywhere. "Dr Mamnohan Singh cannot be spared," was how party spokesperson Janardhan Dwivedi put it. He also asserted that the PM will remain in charge till 2014. Senior Congress minister Ambika Soni said this afternoon that Ms Banerjee's behaviour "doesn't make political or ethical sense." She added, "Never has there been an instance where the name of a sitting PM is bandied about like this."
The attack on the Prime Minister from Ms Banerjee and Mr Yadav is seen as a sign that they would like general elections to be held earlier than that. Both performed exceptionally in recent elections in their states, and would like to capitalize on voter goodwill as soon as possible.
After the meeting ended yesterday, Ms Banerjee blithely told reporters that Mrs Gandhi had named Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee
as her first choice, and Vice-President Hamid Ansari as the runner up. The chief minister then drove to the home of Mr Yadav, and together, they shared three choices for President: the Prime Minister, former speaker Somnath Chatterjee and former president APJ Abdul Kalam
Ms Banerjee 's party, the Trinamool Congress, retorted that she had crossed no line and that she had been authorized by Mrs Gandhi to speak on record.
The Congress allies with Ms Banerjee in West Bengal and at the Centre; her actions have thrown the relationship into break-up territory. The problem is that so far, the Congress had been counting on Mr Yadav to replace Ms Banerjee in the coalition it leads at the Centre. Instead, he seems to have picked Ms Banerjee as his partner. They will meet this evening to further cement their strategy for the election for President, scheduled for July 19. But offering the Congress a lifeline, the Samajwadi Party today made it clear that a compromise is possible. "We have not rejected Pranabji
, we have great respect for him," said party leader Shahid Siddiqui. "All we want is a leader who evokes consensus," he said. Sources say senior Congress leaders are also working the phone to bring Mr Yadav back on board. Mrs Gandhi could meet Mr Yadav as well, they said.
That may be the only good news the Congress has had all day. The Finance Minister, who is among the contenders for the UPA's nomination, has phoned Left leaders Biman Bose and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to bring them on board. However, Left sources say they have warned the Congress not to take their support for granted, and that they are unlikely to support an active Congress politician for president.
After an extended meeting with the Prime Minister this afternoon, Mr Mukherjee shared the latest inflation figures with reporters who were more keen to know whether he is any closer to becoming President of India. "Who will be the presidential candidate, we will come to know shortly," he said.