Somnath emerging as frontrunner for next president

By Faraz Ahmadice


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New Delhi, May 6 (IANS) Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee is emerging as a frontrunner for the post of the next president of India despite formal denial by his office that he was a candidate.

Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) insiders however say they have no one except Chatterjee in mind when they discuss the possibility of the party pitching in for him for the job of first citizen of the country.

The party also seemed prepared to return the post of Lok Sabha speaker to the Congress party and also push for a Congress candidate for the post of vice president in the event of a general consensus in the UPA-Left combine on Chatterjee.

However, when a TV news channel last week carried a news item saying Chatterjee was "in the race for Rashtrapati Bhavan", he took strong exception to it and said "don't reduce it to a matter of media speculation."

In reply to another question he had said, "I have not discussed it (presidential elections) with anybody nor has anybody discussed it with me."

As the seven-phase Uttar Pradesh assembly elections are drawing to an end, the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and its supporting Left partners have started looking at presidential elections to be held in July.

Samajwadi Party general secretary Amar Singh told newsmen here Saturday that his party would support a presidential candidate set up by the Left parties. He, however, clarified this support is only for a Left candidate and not a Left-supported Congress candidate.

Communist Party of India (CPI) general secretary A.B. Bardhan was more categorical. In an interview on TV channel CNN-IBN Sunday, he said he would welcome Chatterjee as president, but would not propose his name for the post.

He too clarified that the Left Front would not support President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam for a second term or Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat for the post of president.

Meanwhile, reports suggest that some discussions on this issue reportedly took place both within the CPI-M and Congress last week.

Sources in the CPI-M mentioned that a meeting of the central committee of the party for this purpose was held last week. But a final view was put off till the Uttar Pradesh election results were declared. "No names were discussed," the sources said.

A major point of discussion at the central committee meeting of the CPI-M was the composition of an electoral college. "A lot depends on the outcome of Uttar Pradesh assembly polls," said a party insider.

The CPI-M's calculation is that the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may not have the numbers to win the presidential elections, even with its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) allies.

According to a CPI-M leader, the party is keen to draw the BJP into a contest – a view shared by the Congress – because "it will be a very good opportunity to see who stands where".

In the Congress, members of the core committee including party president Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Human Resources Development Minister Arjun Singh, Defence Minister A.K. Antony and Sonia Gandhi's political secretary Ahmed Patel reportedly met sometime back and deliberated on this issue.

According to Congress's calculations, the UPA-Left combine has a clear lead over the NDA alliance with a surplus of 80,000 votes in the electoral college for the presidential elections, excluding the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, perceived as neutrals by the two major combines.

The prospect of approaching smaller parties outside the UPA, like former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda's Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S) and erstwhile UPA partner Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) to further consolidate UPA flanks, also came up during the discussions in the Congress.