NDA sans Shiv Sena declares support for Shekhawat


New Delhi : The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Monday announced its support to Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, who will be an independent in the July presidential election, but NDA ally Shiv Sena was not on board with the decision.

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Shekhawat, 84, will now take on ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-Left-Bahujan Samaj Party combine's nominee and Rajasthan Governor Pratibha Patil amid the eight-party Third Front's refusal to back his candidature.

The Front, now baptised as the United New Progressive Alliance and which has 106,281 valuable votes, announced Monday that it would persuade President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to continue for another five years.

Adding to Shekhawat's blows was growing speculation that the Shiv Sena might end up propping up Patil, who is from Maharashtra. The Shiv Sena told NDA Monday that the final decision – to support Patil or Shekhawat – would be taken Tuesday – the party's founding day.

Leaders of NDA decided to come out in support of Shekhawat, a former BJP stalwart, at the residence of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who then read out a brief statement lavishing praise on their presidential candidate.

Vajpayee said the NDA had taken a formal and "duly authorised" decision to support Shekhawat for the post of president as "a non-party and an independent candidate".

The statement said: "It is our view that Bhairon Singh Shekhawat is most suited to occupy the high chair of the president of India."

Vajpayee described Shekhawat as a leader with a "distinguished record of serving the nation from an ordinary citizen to the vice president of India, in a true patriotic fervour.

"He also discharged his duties as the vice president of India acting beyond party affiliations.

"Therefore, the NDA has decided to extend its support to Bhairon Singh Shekhawat as a non-party independent candidate. That is how it should be," the statement added.

Those at the meeting included NDA convenor George Fernandes, BJP president Rajnath Singh as well as colleagues Sushma Swaraj, Jaswant Singh and L.K. Advani.

Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal-United leader Nitish Kumar, Biju Janata Dal's Braj Kishore Tripathy, Akali Dal's S.S. Dhindsa and Trinamul Congress' Dinesh Trivedi also attended. Shekhawat too was present.

Although NDA leaders claim they can rely on "cross voting", they privately admit that the numbers are not in their favour.

"If the Shiv Sena decides to back Pratibha Patil citing Maratha pride, we do not have any scope," said an NDA leader after the meeting.

The BJP-led opposition has 354,689 votes in the electoral college of 1.098 million votes while the UPA is far ahead with about 570,000 votes. The so-called Third Front commands 106,281 votes.