New Delhi/Shillong, June 20 (IANS) In a dramatic development, former Lok Sabha speaker P.A. Sangma Wednesday quit the NCP, saying he was hurt by his party's failure to back his presidential candidature, firmly setting the stage for a contest with UPA nominee Pranab Mukherjee.
But with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) divided over Sangma and the Trinamool Congress not keen on him, the veteran Mukherjee still appears to be on the winning track.
As the NCP mounted pressure on him to drop out of the presidential race in favour of Mukherjee, Sangma took everyone by surprise when he conveyed his decision to resign through Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy.
And Sangma, one of the founders of the Nationalist Congress Party, quickly confirmed his decision to IANS.
A Garo tribal from Meghalaya, Sangma told IANS in Shillong on telephone from New Delhi: "The disinclination of the NCP to endorse my candidature amounts to a denial of the aspirations of the tribals of the country.
"I cannot ignore the feelings of the tribals that Raisina Hill should not continue to be a distant dream for them," he said, referring to the area in the capital where the Rashtrapati Bhavan is located.
"I have resigned accordingly, without any intent whatsoever of embarrassing the party and its leadership," he said.
Sangma, who has been fielded as a presidential candidate by Chief Ministers J. Jayalalithaa of Tamil Nadu and Naveen Patnaik of Odisha, is determined to challenge Mukherjee, sources close to him said.
On Wednesday evening, Swamy met Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader L.K. Advani at the latter's residence along with Sushma Swaraj and Jaswant Singh. Later, former Advani aide Sudhendra Kulkarni called on Sangma.
The BJP's two key allies - Janata Dal-United and Shiv Sena - want to see Mukherjee as India's next president.
Sangma told IANS that he had no option but to quit the NCP, which he founded in 1999 along with Sharad Pawar and Tariq Anwar after walking out of the Congress on account of Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin.
NCP chief and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar said his resignation would be accepted.
A confident Purno Sangma also told IANS: "I have received promises of support from senior leaders of non-Congress parties, including those in the NDA."
Swamy, who described the former speaker as a close friend, said Sangma invited him to his house to say that he felt insulted after hearing suggestive rumours about him.
"He told me he is resigning (because) his self-respect has to be protected," Swamy told the media.
"He has resigned to protect his self respect, not because he anticipates he will be made the NDA candidate," he said.
Resigned to a contest, the Congress said an electoral challenge was part of democracy.
Asked about the fate of Sangma's daughter Agatha, a minister of state in the Manmohan Singh government, Congress spokesman Rashid Alvi said the prime minister will take a decision.
Sangma's daughter had earlier campaigned for her father until the NCP told her to back off.
Even after the support of AIADMK (3.3 percent) and Biju Janata Dal (2.8 percent), Sangma will get only 22.2 percent votes more if the NDA decided to vote for him minus the Janata Dal-United and Shiv Sena.
The Left is widely expected to root for Mukherjee.