As Patil gets busy, NDA not very hopeful


New Delhi : The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) pledged Sunday to formally field Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat Monday in the presidential elections amid growing signs that his supporters were no more sure of his victory against the ruling coalition's Pratibha Patil.

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As Shekhawat spent a largely quiet day Sunday in the national capital, finalizing his election strategy, Rajasthan Governor Patil flew to Udaipur to attend a function honouring Rajput king Maharana Pratap before returning to New Delhi to continue her campaign for the July polls.

The 72-year-old then called on V.P. Singh at the Apollo Hospital where the former prime minister is under treatment and later held discussions with senior Congress leader Arjun Singh.

With Shiv Sena set to break ranks with NDA and cast its lot with Patil, the first candidate from Maharashtra likely to occupy the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Samajwadi Party also made noises that seemed to indicate it might not vote for Shekhawat, whose main support comes from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Samajwadi Party leader Ramgopal Yadav was evasive over Shekhawat, who he described as a former "BJP chief minister (in Rajasthan)" who "became the vice president as a BJP candidate".

But he added in the same breath that as chairman of the Rajya Sabha, "he was neutral as its chairman".

Claiming that the party's National Executive was against both UPA (United Progressive Alliance) and NDA, he said that with only 110,000 votes, the newly formed eight-party Third Front did not have the strength to field a candidate. His party, he added, would decide whether to abstain or field a candidate.

However, Samajwadi Party general secretary Amar Singh said his party would try to defeat "communal forces". "Our party was born not only to oppose communal forces but also to eradicate such forces from the political scene," he said in remarks that cannot bring cheer to the Shekhawat camp.

On Monday, the BJP-led NDA will meet in New Delhi while the Third Front, which includes the Samajwadi Party, AIADMK, Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), will meet in Chennai to decide their strategies for the July 19 electoral battle that will pick a successor to A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.

"We will be certainly supporting Shekhawat for the post and tomorrow's meeting is a formality by the NDA to give its approval," BJP spokesman V.K. Malhotra, who is also the party's deputy leader in the Lok Sabha, told IANS.

The Congress tried to build a last minute national consensus in favour of Patil, the first serious woman contender in any presidential election.

With former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and BJP president Rajnath Singh rejecting the appeal by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi to support Patil, a contest is clearly on the cards.

However, BJP sources admit privately that it looks like an uneven contest.

On paper, the odds are stacked against NDA. Of the total 10,98,882 eligible votes in the presidential poll, Patil can expect over 570,000 votes, including the Bahujan Samaj Party's (BSP) 58,300 votes. BSP chief Mayawati has declared her unconditional support to the Congress candidate.

Patil, who Saturday met Mamohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and Left leaders, is scheduled to be in New Delhi until Monday.

On Sunday, Shekhawat was mostly at home. BJP leader Sushma Swaraj and Janata Dal-United leader Digvijay Singh called on him, sources in the vice president's house told IANS.

The NDA is happy with former prime minister Chandra Shekhar's expression of support to Shekhawat and certifying his secular standing. The alliance expects Janata Dal-Secular leader and former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda to follow suit.

But the Shiv Sena's tilt in favour of Patil is a setback to NDA. Said one BJP source: "Although they have not said anything formally yet, indications are that the Shiv Sena is likely to support Pratibha Patil."

If the Shiv Sena were also to back Shekhawat, then he could expect to get the NDA's 354,689 votes. The Third Front parties command a total of 106,281 votes.

But even if all Third Front parties vote for NDA, which is not a certainty, its nominee can only garner 460,970 votes – giving Patil a victory-margin of over 100,000 votes.