The scrutiny of nomination papers of the presidential candidates was conducted on 2 July. [PL] Sangma and his lawyer, Satya Pal Jain, argued that my nomination papers should be declared invalid as I had, according to them, violated the provisions of Clause 2 of Article 58 of the Constitution of India, which states that the President shall not hold any office of profit. Their contention was that I was the President of the Council of the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), which is a central organisation and a deemed university.

My election agent Pawan Bansal, assisted by P Chidambaram and PH Parekh, stated that the office of the President of the Council of ISI was not an office of profit as neither carried any salary or financial benefit, nor was I the executive head of the institute. They also pointed out that according to their recollection and knowledge, I had resigned from all organisations I had been associated with. To confirm this, they requested that the hearing be deferred for a day so that they could provide the necessary documents supporting this claim.

Pawan Bansal, Chidambaram and Parekh then came to my residence to explain the situation. I told them that I recalled having resigned from the ISI, and that a copy of the acceptance letter of my resignation might be available with my Adviser, Omita Paul. She brought out a copy of my handwritten resignation letter as President of the ISI Council. The President of the Institute, MGK Menon, had made a handwritten notation – “accepted with immediate effect”, on that letter on 20 June.

Chidambaram, Bansal and Parekh then assured me that there was nothing to be worried about. They were fully satisfied and convinced that they had a cast-iron case.

I did not realise then that this was part of a larger conspiracy to get me disqualified.

I am told that some people, including Subramanian Swamy, Ram Jethmalani and Satya Pal Jain, briefed the media that each organisation I was associated with was an office of profit – Asiatic Society, ISI, Rabindra Bharati Society, Nikhil Bharat Banga Sahitya Sammelan, and a host of other literary and academic organisations. However, what they did not know was that after my candidature was announced, I had resigned from all of them. It is possible that the organisation websites and sundry documents had not yet been corrected, which would have prompted these people to raise a hue and cry.

I began my visit to the states on 30 June and completed this exercise on 16 July. I had been to all state headquarters except Shimla (Himachal Pradesh), Aizawl (Mizoram), Itanagar (Arunachal Pradesh) and Shillong (Meghalaya). MLAs of these states had come to meet me at Chandigarh and Guwahati respectively. I met the MLAs and MPs of all supporting parties and UPA partners. I could not address the MLAs and MPs of TMC as I did not have that party’s support. Mamata Banerjee’s decision to support me came much later. At all my stops, I was received very warmly, and met not only with Congress people but all supporting parties. They all reiterated their support for my candidature.

A few interactions stand out in my memory.

On my visit to his state, I recall the Meghalaya Chief Minister Mukul Sangma, telling me, “Dada, you will see he (PA Sangma) will not even get half the votes he expects in his own state Meghalaya, and you will be well ahead of him.”

My visit to West Bengal, not surprisingly, received a lot of attention. The media was present in large numbers both at the airport and at my residence. They were keen to know about the possibility of meeting or a discussion with Mamata Banerjee regarding my candidature. I gave them my stock reply, “I shall certainly speak should the need arise.”

I recall Nitish Kumar, who had already promised me his support even though he was an NDA partner, asking me not to visit Bihar. He said it would be embarrassing for him if he received me at the airport and organised meetings with his MLAs since his alliance partner – the BJP – would not take it kindly. He told me that since he had openly declared his support for my candidature, and Sharad Yadav had, on behalf of his party, signed my nomination papers, there was no need of my visiting Patna.

My visit to Maharashtra on 13 July was significant.

Though Shiv Sena was a part of the NDA, Bal Thackeray, had, without being asked, extended his support to my candidature. This was completely unexpected.

I had asked both Sonia Gandhi and Sharad Pawar ­– who was instrumental, I think, in influencing Thackeray towards me – whether I should meet Thackeray during my visit to Mumbai. I had received several messages from him for an interaction at his residence. Sonia Gandhi was not enthusiastic about my meeting Bal Thackeray and advised me to avoid it if possible. Sonia Gandhi’s reservations about Thackeray were based on her own perception of his policies.

Expectedly, Sharad Pawar’s advice was completely different. Pawar insisted that I meet Thackeray since he and his followers were waiting to receive me at his residence and had made elaborate arrangements for my visit. Pawar added that Thackeray would consider it a personal insult if I did not meet him during my visit to Mumbai. I took a decision to meet Thackeray despite Sonia Gandhi’s disapproval because I felt that the man who had broken away from his traditional coalition partner to support my candidature, should not feel humiliated. I requested Sharad Pawar to take me to Thackeray’s residence from the airport, and he readily agreed to do so.

There was a large gathering of the media and curious onlookers at Thackeray’s residence. I had a brief chat with him, his son and daughter-in-law. The meeting was very cordial. He jokingly told me that it was but natural for the Maratha Tiger to support the Royal Bengal Tiger. We discussed some issues of internal security and he shared with me his very clear perceptions on the same.

I had known Thackeray as a politician with a sectarian approach, but at the same time, I could not ignore the fact that the man had gone out of the way to support my candidature. His decision to support the Congress nominee Pratibha Devisingh Patil in 2007 could still be explained – he himself had said that Patil was Maharashtra’s “bahu” and he had to support his “daughter-in-law” for the highest office, irrespective of the party she contested from. In my case, it was his deliberate decision to support me – he even told me that he found me distinctly different from other Congress politicians. Whatever be the reason, I thought it was my duty to thank him personally for his support.

I returned to Delhi, and the following morning Girija Vyas called on me. She informed me that Sonia Gandhi and Ahmed Patel were upset about my meeting with Thackeray. I understood the cause of their unhappiness but, as I have explained, I did what I believed was right.

I had to keep in mind the sensitivity of the advice of Sharad Pawar—an important ally of UPA- II.

Already, Mamata Banerjee-led TMC had opted out of the UPA and presidential elections. If Sharad Pawar became similarly disenchanted, it wouldn’t augur well for the UPA. The UPA had two more years in office as the ruling coalition; without the effective intervention and support of its partners it would not be possible for it to complete the term. It was already known that Sharad Pawar was unhappy on various issues and the relationship amongst coalition partners was under stress. I did not want to give him further cause for unhappiness. However, I decided not to raise this issue either with Sonia Gandhi or Ahmed Patel, and left the matter at that stage.

It was on my trip to Chandigarh on 16 July, that there was seemingly positive news from West Bengal. Before my departure for the airport, Pradyut Guha took me aside and told me that he had just received a message from Mamata Banerjee. He read it out: “Tell Dada not to worry about me.”

I had always had a feeling that Mamata would come around, which is why I had maintained a stoic silence all along and ignored all comments, including abuses, from her cronies.

I met Sonia Gandhi on the evening of 16 July to update her on my travels. It was a cordial but emotional meeting that lasted for an hour. I assured her that as per my assessment, of the total voting share of the presidential electoral college, I would receive about 70 per cent. At the end of the meeting, I told her, “Madam, this would perhaps be my last meeting with you at your residence, since after 25 July, it would not be possible for me to come and meet you. I have visited your residence since Rajiv shifted to this house in 1990. In the last two decades, we have met countless times, shared views and argued on numerous occasions.”

She was also visibly moved and told me almost in a choked voice, “Pranabji, I will miss you.”

“This will remain a cherished memory for me.” I said. Thereafter, I left.

Around that time, Somen Mitra and Subhendu Adhikari informed me that though it was very difficult for them to read Mamata’s mind, there was little doubt that if she decided to vote against me by supporting Sangma, it would lead to cross voting. About 10 MPs and 50 MLAs would defy the party decision and cast their votes in my favour. However, it would be very difficult for all of them to vote if she decided to boycott the presidential election and issue the Whip to abstain. In that case, about seven to eight MPs would openly defy her and cast their votes. But the MLAs would not have the courage to go against Mamata’s decision.

I informed them that the process of voting by the Members of Legislature does not come within the purview of the Whip and party discipline because it is neither a Legislative action nor a proposal of Vote of Confidence or No Confidence. The member has the right, as per the Constitution, to elect a person. Therefore, here the job of a legislator was simply that of a voter – to cast his or her vote, and not to participate in any Legislation or Resolution of the House.

On 17 July, Mamata Banerjee announced at a press conference that she would support my candidature and directed the MLAs and MPs to vote in my favour.

I became aware of this development when I was awakened by some commotion outside my room that afternoon. I noticed a large number of media persons at the gate. Even as I tried to comprehend the reason behind this excessive media presence, I got a call from Anil Singh of Aaj Tak. He informed me of Mamata Banerjee’s announcement, and wanted my reaction to the same. I told him that I had only heard about this decision from him, and would need to confirm first from Mamata before offering any reaction.

At the camp office, Pradyut assured me of the authenticity of the information, which he had confirmed from the Kolkata press. This also matched the text message Mamata had sent for me a few days earlier. I asked Pradyut to contact Mamata Banerjee on the phone. She was enthusiastic and told me that all MLAs and MPs would vote in my favour and she would ensure that not a single vote was wasted. She assured me that on the day of voting, she would personally monitor the casting of votes by each and every voting MLA and MP. Thereafter, she requested me to visit Kolkatafirst after my election. I thanked her and concluded our telephonic conversation. I was absolutely certain of the fact that she would ensure complete implementation of her decision.

Mamata Banerjee is a true politician. It was not that she did everything casually or as per her whims and fancies. On most occasions, she was carried off by emotions. But even behind her emotional outburst, she had a cool, calculated and well worked-out strategy. All her actions are backed by very strong reasons.

Her decision was to support me with a “heavy heart” – the term she expressed before the media.

Excerpted with permission from The Coalition Years: 1996-2012, Pranab Mukherjee, Rupa Publications.