India will have a new President by July 22 and there is hectic political activity in New Delhi as Congress president Sonia Gandhi seeks to build consensus on the UPA's candidate for the post. She will meet her toughest ally Mamata Banerjee this evening. Ms Banerjee has already held talks with Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav last night and, in a signal that they are aligned on the issue, said she expected to meet him again.
The Congress has so far not named its choice for the top post. However, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee is believed by many to be the front-runner among those vying to be the next President of the country. He cancelled an important trip to Afghanistan this week; his office says he wants to remain in Delhi to monitor the economic slowdown. But in political circles, his presence is being read as a sign that he is on stand-by for the Presidential nomination.
Ms Banerjee, who arrived in Delhi yesterday, has reportedly conveyed to the Congress that she will support Mr Mukherjee for President, but not before the Congress declares he is the official candidate for the UPA. Mr Yadav, whom she met last night, has also said he will speak once the Congress reveals it's candidate's name. Mulayam Singh Yadav, who supports the UPA from outside, has six per cent vital votes in the electoral college that elects the President. Ms Banerjee is no push-over either with her 4.7 per cent votes.
Mr Yadav's is clear that his party prefers a politician to be President rather than a former bureaucrat. That could read Pranab Mukherjee. Other UPA allies like the DMK, Sharad Pawar's NCP and Ajit Singh have already backed Mr Mukherjee's candidacy.
It is the Congress that does not appear ready yet to announce its candidate, despite the urging of its allies. That could be because if it posts Mr Mukherjee to Rashtrapati Bhawan, it will have to find someone to replace him as Finance Minister, Leader of the Lok Sabha and the party's chief troubleshooter. So it could well still be ascertaining whether promoting Vice President Hamid Ansari would be a better idea.
Nitish Kumar's party, the JD (U), has said it prefers Mr Ansari. The JD(U) is an important member of the NDA, the coalition led by the BJP. While the BJP is yet to announce its party line, sources say it may be willing to back Mr Mukherjee. BJP leaders Sushma Swaraj and LK Advani have been assigned to coordinate the party's efforts.
By conveying her stand to the Congress that it must first name its candidate, Ms Banerjee has efficiently lobbed the ball right back into her political partner's court before she meets its President Sonia Gandhi today.
The West Bengal Chief Minister reportedly does not want to be accused of blocking a Bengali's path to Rashtrapati Bhawan. She has also denied that her support for the candidate shortlisted by the Congress will depend largely on whether the Centre agrees to waive for three years the Rs. 22,000 crores her state owes as interest on loans.
A more cynical view in political corridors is that for Ms Banerjee, a major advantage of Mr Mukherjee's elevation to President of India is that he would no longer be in government. Their relationship has not been entirely smooth of late.
Mrs Gandhi has been authorised by her party to choose its candidate for President - the election is scheduled for July 19, and counting, if required, will be held on July 22. Sources in the UPA say that the Congress may wait till the Prime Minister returns from the G-20 summit in Mexico on June 24 before announcing its nomination.
It's not just the post of president that's up for grabs. Jaswant Singh of the BJP, according to sources, is hoping to be made Vice-President. Jaswant Singh met Mr Yadav to ask for his support on Tuesday morning. But Mr Yadav has allegedly refused to back a BJP candidate. The BJP reportedly may be open to supporting the UPA candidate for president in exchange for Mr Singh being accepted as the Vice President.