Sonia refuses to back down on rejecting Rahul for PM

Congress party head's decision seen as attempt to protect her son's nascent political career

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 January, 2014, 11:04pm
UPDATED : Friday, 17 January, 2014, 11:04pm

Indian political matriarch Sonia Gandhi yesterday refused to bow to her struggling party's pleas to nominate her son as its prime ministerial candidate in upcoming elections, which she called a battle to save the country's secular identity.

A day after she rejected a clamour within the Congress party to declare Rahul Gandhi as its choice for premier at polls due in May, the Italian-born Sonia told followers there was no going back on the decision.

"We took a decision on Rahul yesterday and that decision is final," she said in a speech that was interrupted several times with shouts of "Rahul for PM!"

"We meet today to signal that Congress is ready and prepared for the battle ahead," she told a party conclave in New Delhi. "It will be a battle between competing ideologies, conflicting views of the history and a different vision for the future ... it will be a battle for India."

Congress announced late on Thursday that the party will not formally declare Gandhi as its candidate for prime minister — a bit of political manoeuvering aimed at protecting the 43-year-old from being a scapegoat for his party's problems.

After a decade in power, Congress is lagging well behind the Hindu-nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in opinion polls, with voters turned off by an economic slowdown and a string of corruption scandals.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is retiring after two terms, and the party had been expected to nominate Rahul, 43, as its choice for prime minister.

Rahul remains the party's chief election strategist.

Analysts have said the BJP's decision to project the divisive Narendra Modi as its choice for premier could limit its room for manoeuvre in post-election coalition negotiations - a trap that Sonia Gandhi is keen to avoid.

There has also been press speculation that Congress's expected defeat will be so comprehensive that the Gandhi family fears it could kill off Rahul's nascent political career.

The BJP, however, accused the Congress of running scared by failing to nominate Rahul to go head-to-head with Modi, the son of a tea-stall owner who has been at the helm of one of India's most dynamic states for a decade.

"If they had done so there would have been comparisons, analysis vis-a-vis Narendra Modi and all surveys show that Rahul Gandhi stands nowhere in that," said Ravi Shankar Prasad, one of the BJP's leaders in parliament.

A survey last week said that only 14 per cent of voters believe Rahul Gandhi would make the best prime minister, while 58 per cent opted for Modi.