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Sonia, Mamata meet as UPA closer to naming nominee


Presidential poll consultations within the UPA are set to move to the next level, with key ally Mamata Banerjee's scheduled meeting with Congress president Sonia Gandhi on Wednesday indicating that the alliance may finally come out with specific names.


This comes on the heels of the Election Commission on Tuesday announcing the election schedule (see box), according to which voting will take on July 19 and counting on July 22 - two days before incumbent Pratibha Patil's term gets over.


The day also saw finance minister Pranab Mukherjee - widely considered the frontrunner - cancelling an official trip to London slated for the third week of July, after earlier putting off a June 13-15 visit to Kabul.


Mukherjee, however, told HT on Monday evening that it had nothing to do with the elections.


"My top priority is to bring the economy back in shape. I am devoting my full attention to it," he said, after holding a series of meetings with his key officials.


Hours after Mukherjee wrapped up his meetings, Congress president Sonia Gandhi made a late-night call to Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata to invite her for the consultations.


Sources close to the West Bengal chief minister said she told Gandhi that media reports suggested the Congress had already decided on its candidate.


Gandhi reportedly replied in the negative and assured the key UPA partner that the decision would be taken only after taking her into confidence.


Banerjee also indicated to those close to her that she has "no problem" if the Congress goes with Mukherjee. She, however, expects the Congress to make its choice public first.


On the sidelines, the Centre is also moving swiftly to address Banerjee's key concern - her state's debt crisis - before her visit to the Capital.


Top finance ministry sources said the Bengal government has already been offered Rs. 16,000 crore in four installments over the next three years and has been promised more funds for development projects.


Meanwhile, tacit support for Mukherjee continues to pour in from alliance partners as well as a section of the BJP.


Sharad Pawar's NCP on Tuesday said the next president would be "a senior-most person, acceptable to all". This stand is likely to help Mukherjee, the most experienced minister in the UPA cabinet.


The BJP's Maneka Gandhi also pitched for the finance minister, saying the country needs a president like him.


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