Nilofar Suhrawardy, Arab News
Wednesday 19 May 2004
Last Update 19 May 2004 12:00 am
NEW DELHI, 19 May 2004 — Congress leader Sonia Gandhi yesterday stunned her supporters and the world when she stood down for the post of India’s prime minister.
“I would follow my inner voice. Today it tells me that I must humbly decline this post,” Italian-born Sonia told the members of Parliament from her party who immediately interrupted her with shouts of disbelief.
The two names in the hat to replace her were Manmohan Singh, a committed economic reformer and another former finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee.
Congress won the countrywide elections last week but the defeated Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party said it would boycott her swearing-in because she was not an Indian by birth.
“My aim has always been to protect the secular foundations of our nation,” Sonia said.
“We have waged a successful battle but we have not won the war. That is a long and arduous struggle and I will continue it with full determination.”
“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.”
She added: “Our need of the hour is to give strong and stable leadership to the country.”
The 145 anguished Congress MPs who gathered at Parliament’s historic Central Hall to hear Sonia’s announcement, many with choking voices, begged her to change her mind.
Mani Shankar Aiyar, on the verge of tears, said that voters had identified the party with her. “We have been saying that a vote for us is a vote for Sonia Gandhi. The inner voice of the people of India says that you have to be prime minister of India. Can we move forward without you?” Aiyar asked.
Party spokesman and newly elected MP Kapil Sibal told Sonia: “We have faith in you and no one else.”
But Sonia remained steadfast. “I have listened to your views, your pain and anguish on the decision I have taken. I am aware that I am causing anguish to you but I think if you trust me, allow me to take my decision,” Sonia said.
Some MPs said they would rather resign than not be led by Sonia.
Somnath Chatterjee, a communist leader, said Sonia’s children, Rahul and Priyanka, were against their mother becoming prime minister because of fears for her safety.
Supporters gathered in their thousands outside Sonia’s house in Delhi, waving pictures of her and chanting slogans demanding she take the top job.
A former provincial Congress legislator, Gangacharan Rajput, held a revolver to his head, threatening to commit suicide unless Sonia changed her mind.
Others lay down in the street or torched effigies of Sonia’s opponents, who have run a bitter campaign targeting her Italian background.
Investors feared that if she became prime minister, leftists could block key reforms such as the privatization of state-run companies.
That sent markets plummeting on Monday, when the Bombay Stock Exchange, the Sensex, had its biggest drop in its 129-year history.
The benchmark index rose yesterday on news that Manmohan Singh could be the new Congress candidate for prime minister. Many believe he would be able to strike a balance between demands for leftists and policies that benefit businesses.
Singh, who launched India’s shift away from a state-run economy in 1991, accompanied Sonia earlier in the day to see President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam who asked Sonia to prove she could form a government.
Chatterjee, who had fervently opposed Singh when he launched the reforms, said he would have no objection to the former finance minister as prime minister.