Dressed in his trademark bandhgala, a smiling Pranab Mukherjee, the UPA's candidate, filed his nomination papers for the post of the 13th President of India today. Seated next to Mr Mukherjee as he signed his nomination papers were Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi. UPA allies, friends like Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav and senior Congressmen made up the rest of the party. (Who is Pranab Mukherjee?)
Mrs Gandhi signed the register, Mr Mukherjee many papers, which were then scrutinised by the returning officer. There are 480 important signatures on his four sets of nomination papers. Notably, Janata Dal(United) chief Sharad Yadav is the first signatory on one set; Mr Yadav's party is an important part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). He was however not present at Mr Mukherjee's nomination photo-op. (President Pranab? Papers filed with Sonia, PM: Top 10 facts)
After staking claim, Mr Mukherjee sought blessings - heavenly and political. "I only wish at this time that we have the blessings of god and cooperation of all at this juncture," he said.
It also served as an occasion for the Congress-led UPA to show it has friends. Allies apart, leaders of friendly parties like the RJD, BSP, SP attended. In all the bonhomie, Mulayam Singh Yadav held hands with senior Congress leader AK Antony as they walked down the corridor towards the Prime Minister's office after Mr Mukherjee filed his nomination. Asked later, Mr Yadav said they had been and would remain "good political friends."
Calculations at present give Mr Mukherjee a comfortable advantage with about 56 per cent votes in the electoral college. Missing today was key UPA ally Mamata Banerjee, but others like the DMK's TR Baalu and Farooq Abdullah of the National Congress were there. So was Ram Vilas Paswan. Among the 480 MPs and MLAs that have proposed and seconded his nomination are Mulayam Singh Yadav and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati, union ministers, chief ministers and Congress Legislature Party leaders. Even the Shiv Sena is supporting his candidacy.
Mr Mukherjee has wider support than mere political alignments would allow as he is expected to be a political president. His candidacy came not without drama - some brinkmanship from Mamata Banerjee which included heart-in-the-mouth moments as Mulayam Singh Yadav seemed to waver. His own party seemed undecided for long whether it could spare a man who wore many hats. In the end, however, Mr Mukherjee did not see a repeat of 2007 - when the Congress had said it could not spare him for Rashtrapati Bhavan - and was declared the UPA's candidate.
He has split not just the NDA, but has neatly sliced through the Left too - the CPM and Forward Bloc is supporting him, the CPI and RSP say they cannot and are abstaining. The UPA's one loss - Mamata Banerjee, who, however, has still not said an emphatic yes to Mr Mukherjee's challenger Purno Sangma either. Trinamool Congress sources say she will remain "equidistant."
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal, who is Mr Mukherjee's authorised election agent, told NDTV that the former Finance Minister will not file an asset declaration as it is not required under law. He, however, added that it is for Mr Mukherjee to decide if he wants to declare his assets at a later stage. Polling will be held on July 19 and India will have a new President by July 22.
Later this afternoon, Mr Sangma, who is supported by the Bharatiya Janata Party, the AIADMK and the Biju Janata Dal, will also file his papers in what is expected to be an equal show of strength.
The numbers don't favour the former Lok Sabha Speaker, but he is backed by the BJP, and two powerful Chief Ministers - Tamil Nadu's J Jayalalithaa and her AIADMK, and Odisha's Naveen Patnaik and his Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and he is expected to wear that support on his sleeve when he files his papers this afternoon. High-profile BJP leaders like Rajnath Singh, Murli Manohar Joshi and chief ministers of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Goa etc will be present. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who was earlier expected to attend, now won't as he is busy with an official function. Ms Jayalalithaa and Mr Patnaik and Punjab Chief Minister and Akali Dal chief Parkash Singh Badal are also likely to be present.
Ahead of filing his nomination papers, scheduled around 3 pm, a confident Mr Sangma said, "I am a candidate nominated by two chief ministers - Naveen Patnaik and J Jayalalithaa - and backed by the BJP and NDA allies. I am extremely grateful to leaders who have supported me."
After today's grand photo opportunities as nomination papers are filed, both candidates will get into campaign mode. For Mr Mukherjee, that will mean consolidating his numbers. He will fly by a private jet arranged by the Congress first to Chennai and then to Bangalore and Hyderabad as he kicks off his campaign.
Mr Sangma is expected to ensure a high decibel contest. He quit his party, the NCP, which as a UPA ally is staunchly supporting Mr Mukherjee.