India's Congress keeps allies in mind in not naming Rahul as PM candidate

Indian Congress Party Vice President Rahul Gandhi (C) smiles as Congress Party president, his mother Sonia Gandhi, arrives during the All-India Congress Committee meeting in New Delhi on January 17, 2014. India's ruling party was set to put on a unit
Indian Congress Party Vice President Rahul Gandhi (C) smiles as Congress Party president, his mother Sonia Gandhi, arrives during the All-India Congress Committee meeting in New Delhi on January 17, 2014. India's ruling party was set to put on a united front at a mass meeting after its leader Sonia Gandhi stalled a push to name her son Rahul as prime ministerial candidate at looming elections. -- PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - At a gathering of India's ruling Congress party on Friday, party workers chanted "Rahul for prime minister" as party president Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and party vice-president Rahul Gandhi ascended to the stage.

The chanting continued, forcing Mr Gandhi to intervene and ask for calm so that the meeting could continue.

The clamour from party workers was in response to Mrs Gandhi's overnight decision to nip a proposal to officially name her 43-year-old son as the prime ministerial candidate for the general election due within five months.

But Mrs Gandhi did not relent.

"The decision on Rahul Gandhi is final," she told party leaders and workers.

Instead, it was announced that Mr Gandhi would lead the party into the elections as poll panel chief.

Political analysts said the decision was steeped in strategy. The party, they said, was calculating that it would be easier to woo potential allies while keeping the prime ministerial post open. They were also being prudent, shielding Mr Gandhi's political career in case the party did badly in elections.

"They can sense there is anti-incumbency. There is a formal hierarchy in Congress and if something positive happens he will be the natural claimant to the prime ministerial post," said political analyst Sudhir Panwar at the Lucknow University.

"The other reason the party strategists, including Sonia Gandhi, decided against it is because of the potential allies. They have kept it open for the allies. If they name Rahul Gandhi, they will find it difficult to find allies. The situation will be very fluid in these elections."

Dr N. Bhaskara Rao, the chairman of the Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies, agreed. He said: "The new compulsion of coalition politics is that by announcing a prime ministerial candidate you are shutting door on some allies. The Congress has left that option open to woo coalition partners."

The ruling Congress party, which has been at the centre of a series of scams in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's second term in power, got a glimpse of the extent of its unpopularity in the recently held assembly elections. It faced defeat in four states, on the back of issues like price rise and corruption.

The winner was the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, which has pulled ahead of the Congress in opinion polls since naming Mr Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate in September last year. The other surprise winner in the state elections late last year was the fledging anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party, which took Delhi where the Congress had been in power for 15 years.

In her remarks on Thursday, Mrs Gandhi had noted that the Congress party had no tradition of formally naming a prime ministerial candidate. But, Dr Rao pointed out: "This does not mean he is not going to be a candidate but that it is a post-election issue."

In the lead-up to the party meeting, it had been widely anticipated that the Congress would break with tradition and name Mr Gandhi as a prime ministerial candidate.

A section of the Congress party had wanted an announcement, feeling it would energise the cadres and appeal to young voters, who make a sizeable chunk of voters.

But another weightier section, which included Mrs Gandhi, was against it. They were said to be in favour of protecting Mr Gandhi from taking the flak if the party were to do badly in elections.

The "no" announcement handed the BJP another opportunity to attack the Congress party.

BJP leader Arun Jaitely said the Congress "scared" of a square-off between Mr Gandhi and Mr Modi.

"I think it is a recognition of reality since they know they are not going to form the government.

"Then why the need for announcing a PM candidate?," he said.

Comments