Mamata Banerjee met Mulayam Singh Yadav for the third time in 48 hours this evening and said that former president APJ Abdul Kalam is their first choice for the next President of India. "And he will win the election," she said. A clarification followed from Mr Yadav's Samajwadi Party, which said that for them, Mr Kalam is a serious contender, but not its final candidate.
The Congress is looking at that slight gap between Mr Yadav and Ms Banerjee as a chance to drive a wedge between the two powerhouses, who between them hold 11% of the vote for the President of India. Especially because the Congress' partnership with Ms Banerjee is stretched to breaking point.
Sources have told NDTV that all UPA partners were called and told that the Mamata-Mulayam combine is trying to topple the government. Allies were reportedly told that the Samajwadi Party and the Trinamool want fresh elections, and that is why it was imperative that the UPA have its own candidate in Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Ms Banerjee, who partners with the Congress at the centre and in Bengal, today dared the Congress to sack her from the UPA. "We want to be in the UPA. If they don't want us in the government, that choice is with the Congress," she said. For its part, the Congress accused Ms Banerjee of violating political and ethical norms. The crisis began last evening when Mr Yadav and Ms Banerjee together suggested that the Prime Minister be made the president.
The Congress took 16 hours to recover from that stinging humiliation to make it clear that the PM is not going anywhere. "We cannot afford to spare Dr Manmohan Singh," said party spokesperson Janardhan Dwivedi this afternoon. It has also rejected Mr Kalam as a candidate of the UPA. Who the coalition decides to field could be finalised tomorrow at a meeting of the UPA. Ms Banerjee has said she will not attend the session. (Who'll be India's next President? Vote Here)
What's clear now is that the election for President of India will test the authority of the Prime Minister; the leadership of Sonia Gandhi; the premise that the general elections will take place in 2014; and undoubtedly the patience of Pranab Mukherjee, who is a contender for his party's nomination. (10-point cheatsheet on political developments)
As it confronts the possibility of a divorce from Ms Banerjee and the possibility of early elections, the Congress is clocking overtime as it tries to rally its (remaining) troops together. Other UPA members like the DMK and Sharad Pawar have said they will support whoever Mrs Gandhi picks. Though he remains a contender, the nomination for the Finance Minister is not a done deal. If he does land the UPA's vote, Mr Mukherjee could see himself pitted against Mr Kalam, who has served in the past as President, and could be supported by the BJP. But the opposition party has to contend with its own ally, Nitish Kumar's JD(U), which is not entirely convinced about supporting Mr Kalam.
A third contender -the proverbial dark horse- is believed to be Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar. The CPI today said it would like to see a Dalit woman as president. Ms Banerjee said she had also floated Ms Kumar's name to the Congress , which ruled her out.
The Congress core group, which includes the PM and Mrs Gandhi, met in the evening. Their efforts, sources say, will centre around wooing Mr Yadav back to its side, and away from Ms Banerjee. The future of the UPA could depend on whether it succeeds. If Mr Yadav withdraws his external support, and Ms Banerjee quits the government, the coalition could be rescued by the support of Mayawati's BSP but with a wafer-thin margin. "We are always prepared for elections," said Congress minister Ambika Soni, "but remember we have the mandate for five years. Elections are expensive for the country."
Ms Banerjee and Mr Yadav would stand to benefit from mid-term elections because they delivered stellar performances in recent elections in their state, and would like to leverage voter sentiment before their honeymoon period expires.
Offering the Congress a lifeline, Mr Yadav's Samajwadi Party today hinted 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. (Read: President elections - Bets worth 800 crore, see who they favour)
The focus on early elections was heightened by the unusually high-volume comments made by the Congress against Ms Banerjee. Senior Congress minister Ambika Soni targeted Ms Banerjee directly, stating that the chief minister'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 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. That's bad news for Mr Mukherjee. (Read: CPI wants Dalit woman for President)