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Presidential poll sets India’s political chessboard

July 19, 2012

NEW DELHI, July 19: As Indian deputies cast their votes on Thursday to elect a new president for the country the expectedly tame contest set the political chessboard that could see the elevation of Congress scion Rahul Gandhi with more powers in the party possibly with a post in the government.

Simultaneously, the selection of former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee as the probable winning candidate to occupy the British-built Presidential Palace has widened differences within Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s ruling coalition. Reports said Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has offered to quit the post if he was not given Mr Mukherjee’s number two slot in the cabinet, which has gone to Defence Minister A.K. Antony.

The presidential poll seems a formality for Mr Mukherjee who has mustered a strange mix of contradictory support. In Uttar Pradesh, the key rivals, the Bahujana Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party, joined hands to back the Congress candidate. In West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her traditional rivals in the Left Front looked distinctly uncomfortable at being seen as Mr Mukherjee’s supporters.

In an unrelated move, but one which too will have an impact on the general elections due in 2014, the quarreling son and nephew of Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray looked set to come together again.

Mr Rahul Gandhi not known to reveal his moves ahead of the moment made an uncharacteristic announcement to reporters about his likely promotion. “I will play a more proactive role in the party and the government. The decision has been taken, the timing is up to my two bosses -- the Congress president and the prime minister,” Mr Gandhi said.

His comments came a day after Congress President Sonia Gandhi said it was for her son to decide on playing a larger role in the party. Mr Gandhi’s remarks after casting his vote in the president's election set off a fresh round of Congress party appeals for him to take charge. Congress General Secretary Janardan Dwivedi expressed his happiness over the statement.

“We will be very happy if Shri Rahul Gandhi takes on some more responsibility and it will be a very welcome step. What responsibility, whether in the government or the party and when, it is up to the party leadership and Rahulji to decide,” Mr. Dwivedi said in a statement.

Reports said Mr Sharad Pawar was unhappy over being denied the number two position in the government, prompting his National Congress Party ministers to skip the cabinet meeting in New Delhi. They reportedly accused the Congress of showing `indecency’ and `pettiness’ towards its allies.

Heavy Industries Minister Praful Patel, a protégé of Mr Pawar, also skipped the meeting chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

“For the first time in eight years, Mr Sharad Pawar and Mr Praful Patel did not go to the cabinet meeting,” NCP spokesman D.P. Tripathi told reporters.

Asked whether the pecking order was the issue, he claimed that Mr Pawar had never sought any position and the “issues were much higher”.

The presidential contest, whose results will be out on Monday, has pitted Mr Mukherjee against former Lok Sabha Speaker P.A. Sangma who has been a shrill critic of Ms Gandhi’s Italian origins. He is sponsored by the Bharatiya Janata Party and some other opposition parties.

As many as 4,120 MLAs and 776 MPs with a total vote value of over a million votes were eligible to cast their ballot in the 14th presidential election. Members of the Rajya Sabha, the Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies make up the electoral college for the presidential election. Mr Sangma, Christian tribal leader from the remote northeastern region was not expecting to get more than a mere third of the votes.