Will the NDA back Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee's candidature for the country's top job or will they name another candidate in the race to Raisina Hill? A decision by the BJP-led alliance, which has so far followed a wait-and-watch policy, is expected to be taken after a key meeting of the NDA today. There have been hectic consultations between NDA constituents - the Akali Dal and the Janata Dal (United) held a meeting on Saturday morning; the BJP core group met at party president Nitin Gadkari's residence on Saturday night.
Sources say the BJP might consider backing Mr Mukherjee, particularly since APJ Abdul Kalam, seen as a rival candidate, is reportedly unwilling to run against the Finance Minister. But, sources add, it may ask for its own person as Vice-President in exchange for supporting UPA's candidate. The name of Punjab Chief Minister and veteran Akali leader Parkash Singh Badal and BJP's Jaswant Singh is said to have cropped up in this context.
Akali Dal leader Naresh Gujral has however rubbished the talks of any quid pro quo. "The UPA has never made an offer on the Vice-President's post. Why would NDA come into this? It's not our call," he said adding that "Parkash Singh Badal is very happy in Punjab. People of Punjab are also very happy with Badal Ji."
When asked about the possibility of Dr Kalam's candidature, Mr Gujral said the former President has never said that he is in contest for the President's post. "I am surprised that you people are creating a bad name by taking Mr. Kalam's name again and again. He has a good name all over the world. And I think we demean him and we trivialize his name by taking it again and again."
Dr Kalam had avoided comment ever since an unprecedented second stint for him was suggested on Tuesday by Mamata Banerjee and the Samajwadi Party's Mulayam Singh Yadav. Mr Yadav yesterday sided with the Congress, but Ms Banerjee says Dr Kalam remains her only choice.
Meanwhile, sources have told NDTV that the Janata Dal(United), a key constituent of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), is inclined to favouring Mr Mukherjee as the next incumbent at Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Signs of wider support for Mr Mukherjee were visible on Saturday with JD(U) leader Shivanand Tiwari making a strong pitch for him. "Both the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party have spoken in favour of his candidature for the post of President. It also seems that the Left parties of Bengal will also support Pranab Da's candidature. Majority is in support of Pranab Mukherjee. He is a senior leader, he has had a clean political career, everyone respects him. I feel he should be elected unopposed," he said. But his party chief Sharad Yadav hurriedly clarified that this was Mr Tiwari's personal view. Mr Yadav, who is the NDA convenor, was more careful with his words, "Tomorrow (Sunday) we have NDA meeting. We will decide everything in our meeting. We cannot comment on anything before our meeting. Commenting anything before meeting would not be good," he said.
The Congress is trying to get Mr Mukherjee elected unopposed. On Friday, after party chief Sonia Gandhi announced his name, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called BJP leaders Nitin Gadkari and Sushma Swaraj to try to bring the opposition on board for a consensus on Mr Mukherjee's candidacy. He also reportedly called leaders in Parliament of all other political parties now to gather support for Mr Mukherjee. So far, Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party and Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party have decided to back him for President; and the Left too seems to be open to persuasion.
The Congress is even hopeful of garnering the NDA's support. Speaking to NDTV, Union Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, Pawan Kumar Bansal, said, "There is no doubt that Pranab Mukherjee will be the next President. Support from all parties is pouring in. The NDA may also support him." He even said that he is "still hopeful" of estranged ally Mamata Banerjee's support as "nothing can be ruled out in politics."
After the UPA announced its candidate, some BJP leaders met at LK Advani's house in an emergency meeting on Friday night. "Before declaring their choice, had the UPA or the Congress party consulted us, it would have been nice. However, they talked to us after declaring their choice. We will still organise an NDA meeting. I have already spoken to Advani ji and Sushma ji. Tomorrow (Sunday) Arun Jaitley will also join us. We will soon organise a meeting, discuss and will declare our choice," party president Nitin Gadkari had said from Mumbai.
BJP spokesperson Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi had echoed the sentiment when he said, "The NDA will meet and discuss tomorrow (Sunday). It would have been better if they (Congress) would've spoken to us before announcing their nomination."