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Battle lines drawn as India's ruling party fails to declare Rahul Gandhi as its official candidate for prime minister

Congress Party expected to perform poorly at the polls against the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party

Rahul Gandhi, the scion of India’s most famous and successful political dynasty, has sought to declare war on his opponents ahead of the country’s election, describing himself as a warrior “ready to go into battle”. His opponents in turn mocked him and his Congress Party as cowards for failing to declare the 43-year-old as the official prime ministerial candidate.

Just three months before India is expected to go to the polls in what is becoming perhaps the most bitterly fought election for years, Mr Gandhi addressed thousands of his party’s members to declare: “We will go into battle knowing what we stand for.”

Mr Gandhi, the son of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and great grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, will lead India’s oldest party’s campaign against the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its charismatic but controversial leader Narendra Modi.

But after months, if not years, of speculation that he would be officially named the party’s candidate for prime minister, it was announced late on Thursday evening that his mother, party president Sonia Gandhi, had vetoed the plan.

“We took a decision on Rahul yesterday and that decision is final,” Mrs Gandhi declared to the same meeting in Delhi on Friday “We meet today to signal that Congress is ready and prepared for the battle ahead.”

The decision by the Congress not to name Mr Gandhi as its candidate was widely interpreted as the clearest sign yet that the party does not expect to do well in the polls, due to take place before May, and is seeking to limit damage to the already-fraying Gandhi brand.

“Many top leaders and rank-and-file members have been urging the party to formally project Rahul in order to blunt the impact of Narendra Modi,” said Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

“It appears Sonia Gandhi does not share this view, in keeping with past party tradition. But when only one side puts a candidate forward, he or she sucks all the oxygen out of the room.”

That was certainly the opinion of the BJP, which claimed the decision taken by the ruling party in the world’s largest democracy exposed a defeatist attitude.

“This is exasperation from Congress which knows they are going to lose the election and therefore want to save [Mr Gandhi] for the next election,” said Prakash Javadekar, a BJP MP and party spokesman.

The Congress party, led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, has run India’s central government for the past ten years. Having been reelected comfortably in 2009, a series of corruption scandals and mounting concern about the ability of Mr Singh to bring genuine change, have led to considerably strong anti-incumbency mood in the country.

Mr Modi, who has served three terms as chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, has in recent months been riding on this wave and attracting widespread attention and support. Reports suggest that in private, senior Congress officials have accepted they are heading for a defeat.

Yet in the last few weeks, a new, surprise element has been added to the equation. The grass-roots, anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man Party, (AAP) stormed to power in local Delhi elections in December, and have made a late and dramatic entry to the broader political fight.

From their base in the nation’s capital, the leadership of the AAP is now planning to contest at least 300 of the 543 constituency battles across India. There is mounting speculation that if the AAP manages to secure a couple of dozen seats it could take the wind from Mr Modi’s sails.

The fallout from the decision not to name Mr Gandhi as Congress’s official candidate remains unclear. Observers have long commented on Mr Gandhi’s apparent reluctance to step forward and take charge of a ministry, or else a state government.

As a result there has always been a doubt as to whether or not he truly desires to follow in his father’s footsteps and become Prime Minister. Many wish his sister, Priyanka, stepped forward and joined the fray.

Following the decision, party spokesmen were obliged to fall back on the suggestion that it was a tradition not to name a candidate ahead of an election. “Mrs Gandhi said this is not the party’s tradition. Just because some party has declared the PM candidate, does not mean that Congress will do the same,” spokesman Janardan Dwivedi told reporters.

Several commentators said they were struck by Mrs Gandhi’s late-minute intervention to block a move to name her son as the official candidate. “It is like a family soap opera or else a family tragedy, in the classic sense, playing out before you,” said one Western diplomat, who asked not to be named.

Many believe the decision will make little practical difference to the way the election battle plays out.

“I don’t think it makes much of a difference. The Congress is staring at a mountain. Irrespective of who wins and how many seats Mr Modi and Mr Kejriwal may or may not win, the Congress is going to lose heavily,” said Ashok Malik, a writer and analyst.

He added: “Not projecting Rahul as the official candidate is probably an attempt to protect him from the likely election result, and make it easier to blame Manmohan Singh.”

During her speech on Friday, Mrs Gandhi, the widow of Rajiv Gandhi, who was killed by an assassin in southern India in 1989 during an election campaign, blasted the opposition.

She reserved particular ire for Mr Modi, who has been accused of failing to stop a massacre of hundreds of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, and said the right-wing Hindu nationalist would represent a sharp break with the country’s traditions.

“[The election] will be a battle for the preservation of our age-old secular tradition,” she said, according to the AFP news agency. “[India is a fabric] whose vibrant beauty can be seen only as whole, a single fabric much bigger than the sum of all the strands.”