Pranab Mukherjee is UPA's man for president

New Delhi, June 15 (IANS) Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, the government's most reliable troubleshooter, was Friday named the United Progessive Alliance's (UPA) candidate for president and found backing from several parties including the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

Saying that he was deeply honoured, Mukherjee said: "We have requested and appealed to all political parties to lend their support."

He was echoing an appeal made by Congress president Sonia Gandhi who had said while making the announcement: "Pranab Mukherjee has a long and distinguished record of public service standing over five decades.

"There is broad support for his candidature," Gandhi said after the UPA meeting at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's 7, Race Course Road residence.

"The leaders of the UPA constituents met today. It was decided to propose Mukherjee as the candidate for the office of the president of India," she said, reading the statement.

After she made the announcement, DMK leader T.R. Baalu draped a pink shawl around Gandhi's shoulder and gave her a bouquet of white orchids. He then presented an orange stole to the prime minister and to Mukherjee.

The days of tension over, Mukherjee was visibly relaxed with slightest hint of a smile on his face. There was a round of applause from all members after the announcement.

Manmohan Singh, Gandhi and Mukherjee then stood up for a photo-op. The prime minister signalled Mukherjee to come and stand between him and Gandhi, who looked tired after the two days of high violtage political drama.

Gandhi then appealed to all political parties, all members of parliament and members of state assemblies to support Mukherjee.

Soon after the meeting, Manmohan Singh telephoned Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Sushma Swaraj and conveyed to her the UPA decision, BJP sources said.

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, which met Friday morning, is yet to decide on its candidate.

There were reports that former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam had decided not to contest the presidential polls although Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader P.A. Sangma said he was in the race.

The BSP and the SP announced their support for Mukherjee.

The CPI-M congratulated Mukherjee but said it would take a decision on supporting him only after discussions with other Left parties.

"It is courtesy to extend congratulations. As far as support is concerned, we will have to discuss with the Left parties," said Communist Party of India-Marxist leader Brinda Karat.

The Left meeting will be held Saturday, she said.

With Mukherjee being named, avid speculation began on who would replace him as finance minister and in the Lok Sabha.

Mukherjee's possible elevation to the high office would mean the party would have to find two people who could replace him as finance minister and leader of the house in the Lok Sabha.