After former president APJ Abdul Kalam
refused to run for President of India against Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee
, the BJP core group met late on Monday night at party president Nitin Gadkari's residence on whether to back former speaker PA Sangma, who is contesting the election as the candidate of chief ministers J Jayalalithaa and Naveen Patnaik.
Sources say the BJP has promised to contest in the presidential polls and will try for a consensus within the NDA on Mr Sangma. The BJP leaders have also decided, sources say, that they will try and win support for Mr Sangma if the BJD and the AIADMK continue to back him. They also say that in case Mr Sangma backs out, the party will look for a candidate from within the NDA.
The BJP is itching to take on the ruling UPA, which on Friday confirmed the Finance Minister as its candidate. However, the BJP's ally, Nitish Kumar of the JD(U), reportedly does not want to field a candidate against Mr Mukherjee. BJP MP Maneka Gandhi also seems to be breaking rank with her party. She met Pranab Mukherjee on Monday afternoon, and said after the meeting, "the President should be elected by consensus."
Meanwhile, sources have told NDTV that after Pranab Mukherjee called Bal Thackeray, and his son, Uddhav, for a second time on Monday evening, the Shiv Sena assured him of their support. The Sena is a critical constituent of the NDA, and had refused to back Mr Sangma. (Read: Big boost for Pranab Mukherjee: NDA ally Shiv Sena to support him)
The NDA will meet today to evolve a final consensus on its strategy.
Dr Kalam was being aggressively wooed on Monday by the BJP, which sensed in him a chance to put up a credible fight, if not a successful one. Senior leader LK Advani spoke with Dr Kalam thrice on Monday; his emissary, Sudheendra Kulkarni, met Dr Kalam twice. But aware that the math was not in his favour, Dr Kalam told the BJP he wasn't interested.
In a statement on Monday afternoon, Dr Kalam said he has "never aspired to serve another term or shown interest in contesting the election." Acknowledging that political parties and citizens had urged him to contest the election, he said, "I want to thank them for the trust they have in me. I've considered the totality of the matter and the present political situation and decided not to contest the presidential election 2012." (Read Dr Kalam's full statement)
His decision came after two important developments. First, Nitish Kumar, the Bihar Chief Minister, who is an important ally of the BJP, indicated publicly that he was not in favour of placing a candidate against the Finance Minister, who he praised as a capable leader. Then, Mulayam Singh Yadav, who holds six per cent of the vote, said his Samajwadi Party remains committed to backing Mr Mukherjee.
At a press conference in Patna earlier on Monday, Mr Kumar said that the NDA will hold more discussions to decide its stand (a session in Delhi on Sunday evening ended inconclusively). Mr Kumar's comments also suggested that he is still leaning towards Mr Mukherjee - he praised him as a capable leader, and said that ideally, the President should be picked by consensus.
If it can bring Mr Kumar on board, the BJP would like to back Mr Sangma for two reasons. Even though it will lose the election, the party believes that unless it puts up a fight, it will be seen as a largely impotent Opposition by voters ahead of the 2014 general elections. Secondly, it wants to use the presidential race to attract new partners like Jayalalithaa and Mr Patnaik.
Mr Mukherjee and the UPA don't have cause for immediate concern. With Mr Yadav on board, the UPA hits a little less than 50% of the vote. Support from the Left could take it past the 50 per cent mark.