Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh yesterday announced that he will step down after elections this year and said reluctant political scion Rahul Gandhi should take his place if the Indian National Congress party wins an unlikely third term.
Singh also mounted his strongest attack yet on opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Narendra Modi who has been making gains in the polls, despite his links to deadly religious riots in western state of Gujarat in 2002.
“In a few months’ time after the general elections, I will hand over the baton to a new prime minister,” Singh said in opening remarks at a rare press conference that confirmed his imminent retirement.
The 81-year-old had already hinted strongly at his intention to make way for leader-in-waiting Gandhi, the scion of the Gandhi dynasty that has dominated Indian politics since independence.
Singh said that the Congress party would declare its prime ministerial candidate in due course, with commentators speculating the announcement would come as early as a party meeting on Jan. 17.
“Rahul Gandhi has outstanding credentials [to be prime minister]. I hope our party will take that decision at an appropriate time,” he added.
Polls show that Congress is extremely unlikely to emerge as the winner in the world’s biggest election due by May this year, with the BJP under Modi’s leadership gathering momentum.
“It would be disastrous for the country to have Narendra Modi as prime minister,” Singh said.
Referring to Modi’s reputation for decisive leadership, Singh said that political strength was not demonstrated “by presiding over the massacre of innocent citizens in Ahmedabad,” the largest commercial city in Gujarat.
As many as 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed during religious riots in 2002 in Gujarat shortly after Modi came to power as chief minister of the state.
The 64-year-old Modi, who rose through grassroots Hindu organizations, has long been accused of doing too little to stop the violence. Several investigations have cleared him of any personal involvement.
Singh mounted a defense of his legacy, regretting high inflation, the graft scandals and weak growth in manufacturing output, but hailing his government’s work for the rural poor and farmers. On average over the nine years of his two terms, economic growth was “the highest of any nine-year period” since India’s independence in 1947.
Economic growth in the last fiscal year was 5 percent, its lowest rate in a decade, but Singh said the medium-term trend was healthy.
Rahul Gandhi, whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather were all prime ministers of India, has shunned several invitations to join the government and remains only intermittently in the spotlight.
His popularity among the electorate also remains in doubt, with Congress suffering a string of severe state election defeats last year.