The announcement by Rahul Gandhi that he “wasn’t in the race” to be the next Prime Minister of India has been met by consternation and confusion in the ranks of the governing Congress Party.
Gandhi dropped the bombshell during an interview with journalists, the 42-year-old bachelor also saying that marriage held no attraction for him.
He told what had begun as an informal gathering of reporters and some members of his own party that marriage would be a distraction from his mission to reform the ailing Congress Party which he said had degenerated into an oligarchy “where a tiny elite calls the shots”.
He even cited the revered father of Indian nationalism, Mahatma Gandhi (no relation), as his inspiration, saying that while the Mahatma wielded great influence, he never sought power.
His comments about the state of the party are not new, but until now insiders had hoped he would lead the reforms from the Prime Minister’s office after winning the general election scheduled for 2014.
Now it seems he will be satisfied with his current position as Congress Vice President, under the presidency of his powerful mother, Sonia, and that the reforms he wants will come as a result of his work in the background.
With the Congress-led Government of Manmohan Singh beset with scandals and allegations of incompetence, and the 80-year-old Singh almost certain to retire, many party members believe the only hope of Congress retaining power is through a resumption of the Gandhi dynasty. Rahul is the son, grandson and great-grandson of Indian Prime Ministers dating back to independence from Britain, and his family name still carries enormous weight in the country.
Moreover, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) is falling in behind the charismatic Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, as its candidate for Prime Minister and is now widely seen as having its best chance of returning to power since its surprise defeat in 2004.
So if Gandhi does decide not to run – and in the maelstrom of Indian politics there is every possibility that he will be persuaded to change his mind – who are the front-runners to lead Congress into the election?
Party insiders say the choice would be between four senior figures: Chidambaram Palaniappan, Arackaparambil Kurien Antony, Sheila Dikshit and Sushil Kumar Shinde.
Chidambaram is the current Finance Minister and is known to be close to the Gandhi family. He has performed well in the office, but is seen as more of a technocrat than a man with the charisma to lead a mass movement.
Antony is also a trusted Gandhi family lieutenant, but as Defence Minister his prestige has suffered in the wake of an alleged high-profile scam in the purchase of 12 helicopters from the Anglo-Italian company AgustaWestland. Charges of further corruption scandals involving contracts for military equipment and claims by senior offices that the Indian military is badly under-prepared have soiled his previously ‘Mr Clean’ image.
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