Ending weeks of suspense for the Congress and her own party, Mamata Banerjee announced this evening that her party will reluctantly vote for Pranab Mukherjee for President of India.
She said the decision was one that "hurt" and prompted by the calculation that she does not want her party's 50,000 votes to be wasted via an abstention. She also made it clear that Mr Mukherjee, who quit as Finance Minister, is a poor second choice. "We wanted (former President) APJ Kalam to be President...we would have done everything to make him win...but it is our misfortune that he refused to run," Ms Banerjee said, adding that she wishes she "could have voted for Mr Mukherjee with a smile on her face, but that is not the case."
Her motivating factors, she listed, are democracy and the interests of the people of West Bengal.
Regardless, Mr Mukherjee told NDTV he is grateful for Ms Banerjee's support and phoned her to say so. Voting will be held this Thursday and the country will officially meet its next President on Sunday. Even without Ms Banerjee, the support of the Congress and its allies has ensured that Mr Mukherjee should comfortably cross the finish line. So the real take-away of Ms Banerjee's decision lies in her that she wishes to stay with the UPA, a coalition that she has frequently threatened to quit.
Ms Banerjee said that she had invited Mr Mukherjee to tea after she became the West Bengal
Chief Minister, but the appointment hadn't worked out.
"Pranab da was supposed to come and have tea with us in the Writers' after we came to power. It never happened. Hope he'll get time out after he becomes the President."
She said she hopes that she will now meet him once he is the President.
Perhaps inspired by Mr Mukherjee's success, Hamid Ansari -who is looking for a second term as Vice-President - also dialled Ms Banerjee this evening, but was put on hold. The Chief Minister said she has yet to decide which way to vote for Vice-President in August. The BJP is fielding Jaswant Singh against Mr Ansari, who is the UPA's candidate.
Former speaker PA SAngma who is up against Mr Mukherjee for president said that he accepts Ms Banerjee's decision. "She has every right to decide for her party," he said, though he added that when he met her recently to solicit her support, he felt encouraged.
Ms Banerjee has been lobbying the centre for months to waive for three years the 21,000 crores that her government owes as interest on loans. She said she told the Prime Minister today that she does not expect her support for Mr Mukherjee to influence that discussion. The Samajwadi Party, voting with the UPA for President, has been granted a financial package of 45,000 crores recently. Two central universities for Bihar have been green-lit - Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's party is voting for Mr Mukherjee despite Mr Sangma being the candidate of its ally, the BJP.
Ms Banerjee's caustic comments today allow her to save face in a situation where her politics came startlingly undone in public. Ms Banerjee's strategy in the election for President backfired with unmitigated force - she picked a partner who double-crossed her, insisted she would only support Mr Kalam for President even before he decided whether he wanted to contest, and came close to burning her bridges with the UPA, the ruling coalition which she has repeatedly held to ransom over major policies.
Initially, it appeared that Ms Banerjee had outwitted the Congress. Last month, she engineered a liaison with another of its allies, Mulayam Singh Yadav. Together, they had the potential to derail the Congress' candidate. More importantly, their friendship meant that the Congress could no longer assume that if Ms Banerjee quit the ruling coalition, Mr Yadav would step into her place, keeping the UPA up and running. The duo cheekily listed their three choices for candidates, leaving out Mr Mukherjee, and including the Prime Minister, a huge affront which suggested Dr Mamnohan Singh's leadership had run its course.
Then Mr Yadav, as he is wont to do, switched partners again. He secretly met with UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and offered her his party's support for Mr Mukherjee. The UPA formally announced the then Finance Minister as its nominee. One by one, several other parties fell in line.