Tough times for NDA as Shekhawat suffers day of setbacks


New Delhi : The opposition National Democratic Alliance's hopes of giving ruling alliance nominee Pratibha Patil a tough fight in the presidential poll received a double jolt Friday – from the Election Commission and Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav.

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The Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA received major setbacks with the Election Commission declining to act on its demand to make presidential candidates declare their assets, and Mulayam Singh Yadav refusing to back Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, who is contesting as an independent supported by the NDA.

Simultaneously, the Congress launched a strong counter-attack on the NDA candidate, urging him to come clean on what it called "serious allegations" in the media against him.

Criticising Shekhawat's record during the freedom struggle, Congress spokesman Abhishek Singhvi said: "When people were giving up their jobs and plunging into the freedom movement in the wake of Mahatma Gandhi's Quit India call of 1942, Shekhawat joined the police force (British) at that time."

Singhvi was countering the BJP's claims that Shekhawat had had a commendable tenure in the police from 1942.

Taking a dig at the BJP's campaign against the Pratibha Patil, Singhvi said: "Those who live in glass houses should think twice before throwing stones."

Meanwhile Patil herself continued on her election tour to canvass for votes in the southern states, visiting Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh Friday, for the July 19 poll.

Addressing Karnataka legislators in Bangalore, Patil said: "I am aware of my responsibilities. I am deeply conscious of the great honour bestowed on me. I will serve with great humility and a deep sense of gratitude if elected."

The 72-year-old former Rajasthan governor, whose victory is a foregone conclusion, is likely to be the first woman president of the country.

Dismissing the opposition charges against her, Patil said they were attempts to "tarnish" her image.

The opposition has targeted her with a high-pitch campaign over alleged financial improprieties with regard to a bank founded by her and sugar factory owned by her family in the seventies. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-Left-Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) candidate has also been accused of shielding her brother in a murder case.

After addressing Karnataka legislators, Patil proceeded to Hyderabad.

Shekhawat's hopes were dashed when Mulayam Singh Yadav told him that his party would not vote in favour of either him or Patil as both Congress and the BJP are "two sides of the same coin".

Another disappointment came as the Shiv Sena, one of the crucial allies in the NDA, also refused to reconsider its decision to back Patil, who belongs to Maharashtra. In a television interview, Sena executive president Uddhav Thackeray said his party's decision to support Patil was final.

BJP leaders tried to put up a brave face: "We are in touch with the smaller parties including those who are in the UNPA (United National Progressive Alliance, the newly formed third grouping)," said BJP leader Sushma Swaraj.

"The talks are still on," she said.

Party sources indicated that senior BJP leader Jaswant Singh would be flown to Chennai Saturday to seek AIADMK chief J. Jayalalitha's support. AIADMK is a part of the UNPA.

The UNPA had proposed a second tenure for President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, but he declined it after realising there was no majority for him to win the election.

Although Shekhawat had called for "conscience votes" as he claims a good rapport with leaders cutting across party lines, Patil has the edge in the electoral college of MPs and MLAs.

However, a UPA ally, Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) in Andhra Pradesh, has announced that it would abstain from voting to protest Patil's remarks on 'purdah'. At a function in Udaipur, Patil had said that the 'purdah' was introduced to save women from Muslim invaders.