Divided NDA defers decision on Prez poll

New Delhi: The NDA today failed to firm up a position on the Presidential poll as it was divided over opposing UPA nominee Pranab Mukherjee and there was lack of clarity on extending support to P A Sangma.

With an intention of using the Presidential poll to rope in parties like AIADMK and BJD and possibly Trinamool Congress, the main opposition BJP-led alliance decided at a meeting here that talks would be held with these parties to have a common candidate against Mukherjee. At a two-hour meeting of the NDA which was skipped by Shiv Sena, JD-U leader Shivanand Tiwari is believed to disfavoured a contest against Mukherjee because of his stature, reflecting a divide in the coalition.

BJP leaders L K Advani and Sushma Swaraj were said to be of the opinion that there should be a contest but there was no consensus as to whether to support Sangma, who has been propped up by AIADMK and BJD, or Kalam, who is being pushed into the race by Trinamool Congress. There was a strong view that supporting Sangma would help NDA win back AIADMK and BJD. However, to finetune this, talks should be held with leaders of these parties before any decision is reached, sources said.

The NDA coalition was also not clear whether Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee would agree to shunning Kalam and supporting Sangma. After the meeting at BJP leader L K Advani`s residence, NDA convener Sharad Yadav told reporters, "Various leaders put forth their views in detail. More discussions are required in this regard to arrive at the right decision.

"L K Advani will talk to Chief Ministers of NDA-ruled states and all others. NDA will meet sometime later again to take a decision in this regard. Those outside (Delhi) will also be consulted." JD-U chief and NDA Convenor Sharad Yadav did make the point against contesting Mukherjee but he was not averse to going with the BJP should it persist with a fight in the Presidential election.

However, Tiwari, the other JD-U leader considered close to Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, strongly opposed a contest. This is seen as an attempt by Nitish Kumar to keep his options open. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Mukherjee had called Kumar on Friday seeking JD-U`s support for the UPA candidate.

Tiwari, whose party JD-U shares power with BJP in Bihar, was clear that no strong purpose would be served by contesting against Mukherjee, a tall leader with vast experience in government and Parliament, and more so when the UPA has a clear edge in the electoral college.

However, Advani and Swaraj are understood to have argued that Mukherjee should not go uncontested, especially in view of the Lok Sabha polls due two years hence. The BJP is said to be keen on supporting Sangma so that the alliance could rope in parties like BJD and AIADMK that could be valuable in the next Lok Sabha elections. Sources in NDA said that a decision will be taken with the objective of strengthening the NDA coalition.

They said that while wider consultations will be held with all the Chief Ministers of NDA, informal talks will be held with BJD leader and Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, AIADMK supremo and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa and Mamata, whose role has become very important in the Presidential elections.

"The objective is to ensure that NDA gets more strength before the 2014 lok sabha polls," a source said. The NDA is closely watching the evolving situation with respect to Sangma as to whether he will remain in the fray. The NDA sources said there would be no point in announcing support for Sangma unless it was certain that he would continue to be in the race. Sangma, on his part, cleared any doubts by underlining that he continues to be in the race and that he had talked to Mamata also to get her support.

"I appealed to her to support my candidature. She was insisting on Dr Kalam. I said Dr Kalam had opted out of the race, therefore, you should support (me)," he said. BJP leaders felt Advani should stay in touch with Jayalalithaa and Patnaik. Shiv Sena, the oldest ideological ally of the BJP, skipped the key meeting of alliance leaders here, triggering speculation that the party was opposed to a fight due to lack of numbers.

"Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackerey will take a decision on the issue," said party leader Sanjay Raut, when asked about speculation that the Sena was against fielding any candidate against Pranab Mukherjee, UPAs Presidential nominee.

Shiv Sena had not backed former Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat in the Presidential poll last time despite BJP and several others in the alliance supporting him. At that time, it had backed Pratibha Patil–she being the first Maharashtrian to be nominated for the top post of President.