New Delhi : Pratibha Patil, the candidate of India's ruling coalition, Saturday filed her nomination papers for the July 19 presidential election in which she is pitted against Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat even as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) questioned her moral right to hold the country's highest office.
Accompanied by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Patil, the nominee of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-Left-Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) combine, reached the parliament house in the morning and filed two sets of nominations to formally plunge into the big but increasingly murky battle.
If Patil, who enjoys majority support among the MPs and MLAs who elect the country's president, wins the election, she will be India's first woman head of state.
"The opposition is trying to make the atmosphere murky but there is no doubt that our candidate will win hands down," Tourism Minister Ambika Soni asserted after the nomination papers were submitted to Lok Sabha Secretary General and returning officer P.D.T. Achary.
But even as Soni made the comments, an unrelenting BJP stepped up its campaign against Patil, accusing her of shielding her brother who is charged with murdering a man in 2005 and alleging that a sugar factory owned by her owed huge sums of money to a cooperative bank.
While UPA leaders, Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar in particular, rallied to the defence of the 73-year-old Patil, the BJP asked her to give a "satisfactory" explanation to the charges levelled against her.
"A serious moral question arises whether a person involved with an institution (sugar factory) which has indulged in such irregularities is fit to become the president of India. After all, it is a question of public money," BJP spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad told reporters here.
According to media reports, the cooperative factory in Jalgaon in Maharashtra, from where Patil hails, had defaulted on a Rs.175 million loan given by a Mumbai cooperative bank in 1994. Patil is a founder member of the factory but her aides say she has not been associated with it for three years.
On Friday, Rajni Patil, also from Maharashtra, levelled the murder allegation against her brother. She alleged that the brother killed her husband but that Pratibha Patil was "shielding" him.
"These are all stark, important and disturbing facts much in existence even before she was considered a candidate for the highest constitutional office of the country," Prasad said.
UPA leaders condemned the charges and called it a "malign campaign" against Patil, who resigned Thursday as the Rajasthan governor after having served earlier as cabinet minister in Maharashtra half a dozen times.
"Pratibha is one of the cleanest politicians. I have known her since 1967," Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief and Agriculture Minister Pawar told a specially convened press conference after she filed her nomination papers.
Pawar and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi dubbed the allegations a "reflection of the frustration, desperation and a definite loss of understanding of the situation by those who indulged in it".
Patil was the surprise pick of the UPA-Left-BSP alliance for the presidential election after the communists vetoed the candidature of Sonia Gandhi's first choice, Home Minister Shivraj Patil.
Meanwhile, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who has rejected the Third Front's plea to consider a second tenure after initially expressing willingness to contest if there was certainty of his victory, Saturday said "enough was enough".
"In five years time in Rashtrapati Bhavan, we have all worked for transforming it into a people's bhavan. Rashtrapati Bhavan has become a people's bhavan today. I believe it should be an example for the nation. It should not get degenerated. That is why I said enough is enough," Kalam said during an interaction with a news agency.
Kalam's withdrawal from the scene means Patil and Shekhawat will fight it out, with the numbers clearing favouring the former. Shekhawat will file his nomination papers Monday or Tuesday.
Twelve independents have also filed the nominations although many do not have the support of the mandatory 50 MPs or MLAs proposing and seconding them.
All the key UPA leaders and partners except those of the BSP were present when Patil filed her nomination. Patil's husband Devisingh Shekhawat was with her.
Patil, who visited Rajghat to pay tributes to Mahatma Gandhi before she filed her nomination, will tour all state capitals appealing for support. She is likely to begin her journey on July 1 from Chennai.
The scrutiny of the nominations will take place July 2. The election will be on July 19 and the result will be declared July 21.