Gandhi rejects office of prime minister
• Mrs Gandhi declines premiership amid reports her family fear for her safety
• Senior Hindu nationalist figures outraged by Mrs Gandhi's Italian origin
• Former finance minister Manmohan Singh likely to take office
"The post of prime minister has never been my aim. 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" - Sonia Gandhi, Congress party president
Story in full INDIA took a collective gasp yesterday as Sonia Gandhi, the heir to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, tearfully gave up her chance to become prime minister, choosing to protect her government from damaging attacks over her Italian ancestry.
Announcing her decision at a stunned and angry meeting of the Congress parliamentary party, Mrs Gandhi said she would not change her mind.
"I was all along certain that if ever I found myself in the position I am in today, I would follow my inner voice," she said. "Today, it tells me that I must humbly decline this post."
Her speech was then drowned out by passionate appeals from supporters, who mobbed the podium.
But she continued: "The post of prime minister has never been my aim. 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," she said. "There is no question. It is my inner voice; it is my conscience."
Mrs Gandhi’s withdrawal came after threats from senior figures in the opposition BJP party to stop her becoming prime minister "at all costs", a move that could have deadlocked a parliament not known for calm debate.
But some reports also said the decision was influenced by pleas from her son, Rahul, and daughter Priyanka, who feared she would follow her husband, Rajiv Gandhi, and her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, by being assassinated.
The sudden move caused complete surprise. At yesterday’s chaotic party meeting in parliament’s central hall, party member after party member pleaded with her to change her mind.
With tears and breaking voices, they said millions of ordinary Indians had chosen her to lead them, and they begged her to ignore attacks by Hindu nationalists over her foreign birth.
"Please remain with us; you cannot betray the people of India," said one emotional MP, Mani Shankar Aiyer, in the hall where Mrs Gandhi was anointed prime minister-elect three days previously.
Mrs Gandhi, in a blue-lined cream sari, sat silently throughout, tears welling in her eyes. She rejected a unanimous party motion to reconsider.
The meeting broke up without answering the question of who will ask the president, Abdul Kalam, to let Congress and its allies take office, and when. It is expected Mrs Gandhi will today ask her party to support the former finance minister, Manmohan Singh, the architect of the country’s economic reforms, for the top job.
Outside parliament, too, people were visibly shocked that the Italian-born Congress president, 57, was stepping aside. Hundreds of angry supporters surrounded the Gandhi home in Delhi.
"Who should be the country's leader? Sonia Gandhi!" they chanted to the beat of drums.
One Congress worker climbed on top of a car and held a gun to his head. He then fired a shot, but was uninjured. "Call Sonia Gandhi! Tell her I will kill myself if she doesn’t become prime minister!" he said before being disarmed.
Others set fire to effigies of the leaders of the outgoing BJP administration, who have branded a Sonia Gandhi-led government a national humiliation.
Scattered protests were reported across the country. One Congress worker in the northern city of Kanpur doused himself with paraffin and tried to burn himself alive, but was stopped. Another tried to jump from a building.
Jyoti Basu, a senior Communist Party of India-Marxist leader and Congress party ally, said Mrs Gandhi’s children did not want her to take the post.
Mr Basu claimed: "Rahul and Priyanka said: ‘We have lost our father; we don’t want to lose our mother as well’."
"This is a woman whose husband was killed by terrorists, a woman whose mother-in-law died of gunshot wounds. Of course, there are security concerns," said Jayanti Natarajan, a senior Congress party leader.
Mrs Gandhi’s origins have provoked incendiary comments from her opponents. "A foreigner becoming the prime minister of the country will put national security and the country’s self-respect in jeopardy," said Uma Bharti, a minister in the outgoing government.
But despite what appeared to be an act of political martyrdom, analysts said cold calculation about what was best for the Gandhi dynasty’s longevity might have played a role.
Yashwant Deshmukh said: "In a few years’ time, Rahul can go before the Indian people with the family’s reputation intact and say: ‘I am young, I am good and I am Indian. Give me a mandate.’"
He added that by eliminating the BJP’s most potent weapon, it also reduces the bargaining power of argumentative allies. "This is a brilliant strategic move by Mrs Gandhi."
The sense of personal sacrifice could add to the Gandhi family’s reputation.
Born the daughter of a builder in a small town near Milan, she only took Indian citizenship in 1984, years after marrying Rajiv Gandhi.
The election, which returned Congress as the biggest single party, was seen as a personal victory for Mrs Gandhi, who took her message to almost every state during a tireless campaign, dragging Congress back to electoral respectability after eight years in the wilderness.
With the help of two communist parties, Congress had been expected to form a government this week. More than 320 MPs in the 545-seat lower house had promised support.
But even before yesterday’s spectacular U-turn, the shine had been taken off the party’s success by fears that her allies, especially the far Left, would attempt to apply the brake to reforms and a privatisation process economists say need to be speeded up if India is to become a major economic power.
The communists’ decision to support Mrs Gandhi from outside of government only made matters worse, hinting at an unstable administration.
The move sent the Bombay stock exchange crashing by 11 per cent on Monday, over fears on the government’s economic policy. With the news of her departure, it largely clawed its way out of the red yesterday.
The share prices might yet yo-yo again. Mrs Gandhi’s daughter, Priyanka Vadra, said that, despite her protestations, she might change her mind.
"I think after what I’ve seen today she will certainly think about it. I don’t know what decision she will take ... power and position has never been one of her aims."
She added: "I know she feels very responsible to her party."
Rahul Gandhi, 34, disagreed, adding that his mother had cast doubt on her becoming prime minister in a phone conversation with him on 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’."
Asked if there was any chance of her reconsidering, after four hours of pleas from Congress members, he answered: "I would be very surprised."
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