Gandhi refuses to become premier

Leader of Congress party in India rejects job, maybe for fear of assassination

May 19, 2004|By Paul Watson | Paul Watson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW DELHI, India - Hounded by Hindu nationalists and apparently fearing for her safety, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi shocked her adopted nation yesterday by announcing she would not become India's next prime minister.

Former Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, a key member of Gandhi's transition team, will be the Congress party's new candidate, Jairam Ramesh, a senior Congress official, told The Associated Press today.

Once the allies have expressed their support for Singh - who would be the country's first Sikh prime minister - Singh must meet the president to stake his claim to form the next government.

Singh was the architect of India's economic liberalization program during the last Congress-led government, from 1991 to 1996. News that he could get the top post boosted India's stock market yesterday. A day earlier, the benchmark index had suffered the biggest drop in its 129-year history after concerns about how a Gandhi-led government would proceed with economic reforms.

Gandhi broke down in tears yesterday when she told members of Congress in Parliament that she would not accept their nomination to lead the world's largest democracy.

"I have always asserted that if ever I found myself in the position that I am in today, I would follow my inner conscience," she said. "Today that voice tells me I should humbly refuse to take that post."

Senior aides and allies of the Congress party had tried for two days to persuade Gandhi to accept the job of prime minister after she led the opposition in defeating the Hindu nationalist government of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee last Thursday.

When Gandhi announced her decision, several members of Parliament walked toward the podium, shouting that she should not surrender to pressure from Hindu nationalists who threatened to stage demonstrations across India to protest her Italian roots.

Gandhi insisted, "There is no blackmail from any party."

"My request to you all is to understand the strength of my resolve," she said. "That is why I request you to accept my decision and please understand it very well, that I am not going to change my decision."

Congress members of Parliament tried anyway, rising in one speech after another to plead, cajole - even threaten mass resignation - in hope that they could persuade the woman who has led their party since 1998 to lead the nation.

Hundreds of her supporters, many feeling betrayed, maintained a vigil outside her residence late into the night. Several supporters held up posters that declared: "Sonia or Suicide."

The vigil turned bizarre when Gangacharan Rajput, a former Congress member of Parliament, put a pistol to his temple and threatened to kill himself. He apparently fired a shot that missed, and police wrestled him to the ground.

Gandhi has frequently said that she was not leading her party to become prime minister. Her main goal, she said, was to defeat Hindu nationalists and see the return of a secular government.

"I was never hungry for power, nor was it my aim to get any post," she said last night.

But her supporters saw Gandhi as the rightful heir to a family dynasty that has dominated Indian politics for almost 40 years. The Gandhis live under a threat of assassination. Extremists killed her husband, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and her husband's mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Members of Gandhi's Congress party, and its leftist allies such as Communist leader Jyoti Basu, said Gandhi's adult children Rahul and Priyanka persuaded her not to become prime minister because they were afraid for her life.

"Rahul and Priyanka said, `We have lost our father, we don't want to lose our mother as well,'" Basu said.

Last week, Rahul was elected to Parliament in the Gandhi family stronghold of Amethi, in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state. Priyanka was her mother's campaign manager and is considered a strong candidate to lead the Congress party in the future.

The Associated Press contributed to this article. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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