Uproar as Gandhi says: I won't be PM

Posted in Other | 20-May-04 | Author: Randeep Ramesh| Source: Guardian

Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born leader of India's Congress party, yesterday abandoned the race to become prime minister days after winning a general election, saying that leading the nation had not been her aim.

Mrs Gandhi's decision stunned her supporters, who demonstrated in Delhi last night, and came after Hindu nationalists vowed to launch a national campaign against the prospect of a foreign-born woman leading India's 1bn people.

"The post of prime minister has not been my aim," Mrs Gandhi told Congress MPs in the central hall of the Indian parliament. "I was always certain that if ever I found myself in the position I am in today I would follow my inner voice. I humbly decline the post."

Mrs Gandhi, who entered politics six years ago, pulled off the most remarkable electoral victory since India became independent in 1947. Her campaign, pointing out that India's economic success had failed to trickle down to the country's millions of poor people, had proved surprisingly effective.

While the Congress party fell far short of a majority, as the single-largest party it will lead the formation of the government. Many had expected Mrs Gandhi, as party leader, to become the fourth member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to be prime minister.

Congress MPs lined up to praise Mrs Gandhi, many close to tears, hoping that their words would change her mind.

Mrs Gandhi was visibly shaken by the outpouring and simply said: "Trust me." Her daughter Priyanka, who campaigned for the party, said her mother would carefully weigh the words of her MPs.

"Power is not one of her aims," she said. "I know that she feels responsible and answerable to the party. All my life I have known that my parents do not belong to us."

In meetings yesterday Mrs Gandhi's political allies had attempted to dissuade her from stepping down. But they left empty-handed saying that Priyanka, 31, and her brother Rahul, 34, feared for their mother's life.

"They said 'we have lost our father. We do not want to lose our mother as well.' What can I say? I cannot provide her safety. It is a family affair now," said Jyoti Basu, leader of the Communist party of India (Marxist).

Mrs Gandhi's husband and mother-in-law, both prime ministers, were both assassinated. Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a suicide bomber in 1991 and Indira Gandhi was shot by her own bodyguards in 1984.

The departure of Mrs Gandhi leaves the way open for Manmohan Singh, who would be India's first Sikh prime minister. Mr Singh is an economist who orchestrated the financial reforms that have seen India become one of the world's fastest growing economies. Reports that he could become prime minister helped send the country's stock markets soaring. The Mumbai stock exchange jumped nearly 372 points to close at 4877, the biggest one-day gain in more than five years.

Many Congress MPs turned their fire on the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, which had formed the core of the outgoing administration and had raised the issue of Mrs Gandhi's foreign origins in a bid to discredit her.

"It is naked racism on the part of the BJP. They are simply trying to polarise the country over the issue," said Jayanti Natarajan, a Congress MP from the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

However, nationalist MPs were unapologetic. "It would have been a national shame if Sonia Gandhi was to become prime minister. Anybody else is acceptable," said Sushma Swaraj, a member of the Indian parliament's upper house.

Political commentators said Mrs Gandhi would remain a powerful figure on the political scene. "I do not think there will be any decision taken by the cabinet which she does not approve of," said MJ Akbar, editor of the Asian Age and a former Congress MP.