- POSTED: 17 Jan 2014 16:02
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Indian political matriarch Sonia Gandhi Friday refused to bow to her struggling party's pleas to nominate her son as its prime ministerial candidate in upcoming elections, which she called a battle to save the Hindu-majority nation's secular identity.
NEW DELHI: Indian political matriarch Sonia Gandhi Friday refused to bow to her struggling party's pleas to nominate her son as its prime ministerial candidate in upcoming elections, which she called a battle to save the Hindu-majority nation's secular identity.
A day after she silenced a growing clamour within the Congress party to declare Rahul Gandhi as its choice for premier at the polls due in May, the Italian-born Sonia told followers there was no going back on the decision.
"We took a decision on Rahul yesterday and that decision is final," Sonia told delegates at a party conclave in New Delhi as newspapers reported that only a minority of Congress leaders had backed her decision.
After a decade in power, Congress is lagging well behind the Hindu-nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in opinion polls, with voters turned off by an economic slowdown and a string of corruption scandals.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is retiring after two terms, and the party had been expected to nominate the 43-year-old Rahul as its choice for premier at the conclave.
But the prospects were dashed when Sonia Gandhi, the powerful party president and senior-most figure in the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, opposed the move at a meeting on Thursday night.
Rahul, who is also due to address Friday's gathering, remains the party's chief election strategist.
Analysts have said the BJP's decision to project the divisive Narendra Modi as its choice for premier could limit its room for manoeuvre in post-election coalition negotiations -- a trap that Sonia Gandhi was keen to avoid.
There has also been press speculation that Congress' expected defeat will be so comprehensive that the Gandhi family does not want to kill off Rahul's nascent political career.
But the family's star power remains high and many in the party see Rahul as their best hope, despite his aversion to the media spotlight and his well-documented reservations about following in the prime ministerial footsteps of his father, grandmother and great-grandfather.
"All the members of the CWC (Congress Working Committee) wanted him to be announced as the PM candidate but the Congress president intervened," Congress general secretary Janardan Dwivedi told reporters.
"She said: 'This is not the party's tradition (to announce its PM candidate before elections). Just because some party has declared the PM candidate, does not mean that Congress will do the same.'"
The BJP has stretched its lead in the polls over Congress since its September decision to elevate Gujarat Chief Minister Modi -- who stands accused by critics of turning a blind eye to savage riots in his state in 2002.
In her speech on Friday, Sonia Gandhi launched a blistering attack on Modi.
"It (the election) will be a battle for the preservation of our age-old secular tradition," she said.
She referred to India as a fabric "whose vibrant beauty can be seen only as whole, a single fabric much bigger than the sum of the all the strands", accusing the BJP of "stretching it to breaking point".
The BJP, however, accused the Congress of running scared by failing to nominate Rahul Gandhi to go head-to-head with Modi, the son of a tea-stall owner who has been at the helm of one of India's most dynamic states for a decade.
"They have not presented him as the prime ministerial candidate, because if they had done so there would have been comparisons, analysis vis-a-vis Narendra Modi and all surveys show that Rahul Gandhi stands nowhere in that," said Ravi Shankar Prasad, one of the BJP's leaders in parliament.
A survey last week said that only 14 percent of voters believe Rahul Gandhi would make the best prime minister while 58 percent of respondents opted for Modi.
Rahul Gandhi is often seen as a reluctant leader and his previous refusal to embrace the political spotlight has frustrated colleagues. His father Rajiv and grandmother Indira were both assassinated, and he once likened power to "poison".