Wed, May 19, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Gandhi shuns prime minister post

NO THANKS Members of India's Congress party were outraged when Sonia Gandhi declared she was following the voice of her conscience by turning down the job

AP , NEW DELHI

Sonia Gandhi, leader of India's Congress party, back window at right, on her way to a meeting with President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in New Delhi yesterday.

PHOTO: AFP

Sonia Gandhi announced yesterday that she would not become India's first foreign-born prime minister, stunning her supporters and the nation.

"The post of prime minister has not been my aim," she told members of her Congress party in the central hall of Parliament.

"I was always certain that if ever I found myself in the position I am in today, I would follow my inner voice. I humbly decline the post," she said.

Gandhi shunned the top job even though her Congress party and its allies trounced the Hindu-nationalist party of caretaker Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpa-yee and his Democratic National Alliance in national elections that ended last week.

She said she was acting in the interest of the nation.

Her party reacted with uproar. Congress lawmakers shouted and pleaded with Gandhi to change her mind. She had to stop speaking several times to get the audience to quiet down.

"I request you to accept my decision," she said, adding that she would not reconsider.

Her decision came after Hindu nationalist outrage grew against her Italian origins and her background as a Roman Catholic, as well as investor fears that she would not be able to withstand demands from leftist allies to peel back market-driven reforms that have made India's economy boom.

Earlier yesterday, Gandhi met with President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam but did not, as widely expected, leave with his approval to form a minority government that would be dependent on the outside support of two communist parties.

"It is my inner voice, my conscience," she said of her decision to withdraw.

"My responsibility at this critical time is to provide India with a secular government that is strong and stable," Gandhi said.

Congress sources said Gandhi had put forward Manmohan Singh and Pranab Kumar Mukerjee, two former finance ministers, as possible candidates for the prime minister's post.

Somnath Chatterjee, a legislator from the Communist Party of India-Marxist, suggested that Gandhi's decision was based on fears for her family, which is India's top political dynasty.

"There are rumors that her children are against her becoming prime minister, maybe because of security reasons," he said.

Some Hindu nationalists took to the streets yesterday saying a foreigner should not lead India, even though Gandhi has been an Indian citizen for more than two decades.

"A foreigner becoming the prime minister of the country will put national security and the country's self-respect in jeopardy," Uma Bharti, a former sports minister in outgoing Vajpayee's government, was quoted as saying by the Press Trust of India news agency.

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