Sonia Gandhi denies dynasty a new era of leadership

After days of indecision, the Congress Party leader yesterday stunned India with a refusal to take office. Stephen Khan reports
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The Independent Online

A week ago Sonia Gandhi led India's most famous family back from the political history book to the front pages of international newspapers. Yesterday she walked away from the premiership that seemed destined to be hers. Following the Congress party's astonishing victory in a general election almost all the polls said it would lose, the Italian-born widow of former premier Rajiv Gandhi was supposed to become the latest member of the dynasty to lead India.

But against a backdrop of plunging share prices and protests from defeated opponents about her Italian origins, she has opted to stand aside. The party to which her family is inextricably linked is now looking to other senior figures to forge alliances that will allow it to govern.

Yesterday, Mrs Gandhi's colleagues begged her to reconsider. Tears welled in her eyes. But it appears there will be no going back. And her decision may pave the way for the architect of India's modern economic reforms, Manmohan Singh, to take over the world's largest democracy.

Mrs Gandhi will remain as president of Congress, but will not be directly involved in the day-to-day running of the country. She called an emergency meeting last night at the Central Hall of Parliament in Delhi and told newly elected members that India now needs "strong and stable" leadership.

When the results of the month-long election were revealed last week, the Gandhi-led Congress confounded the predictions of political observers and exit polls by becoming the country's largest party and ousting the Hindu-nationalist BJP from power.

It now appears that no-one was more surprised than Mrs Gandhi that she was suddenly in a position to lead the country. Although she married into the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, she has no direct experience of government and never appeared happy in the limelight. "The post of prime minister has not been my aim," she told last night's gathering. "My aim has always been to protect the secular foundations of our nation. I request you to accept my decision and I will not revert."

But for some Congress members who almost worship the Gandhi name, the 57-year-old widow's decision was hard to accept. More than a dozen stormed the podium in the middle of Ms Gandhi's speech and begged her to reconsider. "We don't know what to do," said Salman Khurshid, a Congress MP. "To be told suddenly that she cannot become prime minister is something we cannot accept. We cannot imagine a government without Sonia Gandhi."

Outside Mrs Gandhi's residence in New Delhi, Congress party supporters were also unwilling to accept the news. About 1,000 supporters gathered there after rumours spread of Ms Gandhi's decision. They waved green, white and saffron Congress party flags and posters. "No Sonia, no government," the supporters chanted.

There were also protests outside Congress party headquarters in other parts of the country and at one point a former Congress MP climbed on top of a car, pointed a loaded gun at his head and threatened to kill himself unless Ms Gandhi took the post of Prime Minister.

One Congress worker in the northern city of Kanpur is said to have doused himself with kerosene and tried to burn himself alive, but was stopped. Another tried to jump from a building.

Sonia Gandhi did not publicly give any reasons why she decided to decline the Prime Minister's post, but there was no shortage of speculation. She has been heavily criticised during and after the election because she was born in Italy. Her critics say that as a foreigner she has no right to lead India.

Following defeat at the polls, BJP complaints about her origins turned to a cacophony of complaint. Many senior members of the Hindu nationalists had threatened to boycott Ms Gandhi's swearing-in ceremony. "This is not a question of national democracy, it's a question of national honour," the outgoing BJP health minister Sushma Swaraj said yesterday as rumours spread that Ms Gandhi might turn down the job of Prime Minister. "I think this would be the right thing to do and my respect for her would go up."

Immediately after Mrs Gandhi's announcement, the BJP said it would attend the swearing-in ceremony for whoever became Prime Minister and would work as a constructive opposition.

Mrs Gandhi's supporters were scathing of the personal attacks against their leader by the BJP. "It is nothing but a day of shame for this country if the leader of an elected party cannot form a government because of threats by the BJP," said one senior politician expected to lend his support to a Congress-led coalition government.

In a string of speeches marked by impassioned pleas, tears and breaking voices, Congress MPs told Mrs Gandhi that millions of ordinary Indians had chosen her to lead them and begged her to ignore attacks by Hindu nationalists over her foreign birth. "Please remain with us, you cannot betray the people of India," said Mani Shankar Aiyer. "The inner voice of the people of India is that you should be the prime minister." But Mrs Gandhi, in a blue-lined cream sari, sat silently throughout, rejecting a unanimous party room motion to reconsider.

Sonia Gandhi would have been India's first foreign-born prime minister and the fourth from the Nehru-Gandhi clan after Rajiv, Indira and Indira's father, founding Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

But yesterday markets rallied on the news of her withdrawal. Stocks on the Bombay exchange posted their second-biggest daily rally just a day after the worst plunge in the exchange's 129-year history.

India's markets have been battered in recent days because of anti-reform comments by left-wing parties, which have more than 60 seats and had said they would support a Gandhi-led Congress without formally joining her coalition.

Congress decided against selecting a new leader yesterday, but it was widely anticipated that it would rally round Manmohan Singh, who as finance minister during the Congress government of the early 1990s is widely credited with ushering in reforms that blossomed into the economic boom of recent years.

He is a seasoned politician more palatable to the business community and widely regarded as someone who can unite the country. While the economic turbulence of recent day must have come as a sharp jolt to Mrs Gandhi, supporters pointed to the reaction of the ousted BJP and the family's tragic past as the most likely causes of her shock decision. Ms Gandhi's mother-in-law Indira Gandhi, was assassinated while she was Prime Minister in 1984. Her son, Sonia Gandhi's husband, Rajiv Gandhi, also a former Prime Minister, was assassinated in 1991.

Somnath Chatterjee, a communist party leader expected to back the new government, said that Mrs Gandhi's children did not want her to be Prime Minister. Mr Chatterjee said her son Rahul and daughter Priyanka told their mother they feared for her life. Yet the young Ganhdis formed a cornerstone of the Congress electoral strategy. If anything they were given more prominence in public than their mother.

Both were dispatched to Karachi to revel in the country's cricketing triumph against Pakistan. It was they, not their mother and, perhaps more importantly, not the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who were plastered all over Indian newspapers following the historic first match of the series in March.

It emerged yesterday that Mrs Gandhi told Rahul five days ago she did not intend to become India's prime minister. The 34-year-old, who became an MP for the first time last week said he would be surprised if she changed her mind, despite pleas from her party to lead the government. Mr Gandhi said his mother had cast doubt on the prospect of becoming prime minister in a phone conversation he had with her last Thursday. "I asked her, 'Mother, you've won the election. Now are you going to be PM?"' Rahul told reporters. He said she answered: "No, Rahul."

Neither he nor his mother offered an explanation for the decision. "She acts from the heart," he said. His sister, Priyanka Vadra, however, said there was a chance she may change her mind. "I think after what I've seen today she will certainly think about it," said Mrs Vadra. "I don't know what decision she will take. Power and position has never been one of her aims."

Whatever Rahul and Priyanka feelings about their mother's decision not to take on the premiership, one result of this election is not in doubt. The Gandhi dynasty is back. But it is the new generation that will form its political backbone.

Additional reporting by Jeremy Copeland