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India's Congress Party Looks for Candidate to be Prime Minister - 2004-05-18

India's Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi has declined to become the country's next prime minister following outrage on the part of Hindu nationalists over the prospect of having a foreign-born prime minister. Her decision has stunned her party and its allies. As Anjana Pasricha reports, India's former finance minister Manmohan Singh is now the leading contender for the post.

The dramatic announcement that Sonia Gandhi will not be the country's next prime minister was the second political shock for India in recent days.

Last week, her party won a surprise victory ousting a Hindu nationalist led coalition from power, and put her on course to take the country's top job.

However, late Tuesday Mrs. Gandhi announced her decision to step out of the prime minister's race at an uproarious meeting of Congress Party lawmakers. Mrs. Gandhi said she was following her conscience and will not reconsider.

?I was always certain that if ever I found myself in the position that I am in today, I will follow my inner voice,? she said. ?Today that voice tells me I must humbly decline this post.?

Mrs. Gandhi's party and its allies had strongly supported her for the country's top job, but since Monday evening, speculation has been rife that she would not take the post.

Her party and allies say she was upset by a campaign mounted by the defeated Bharatiya Janata Party led coalition to oppose her as prime minister, because she is not Indian by birth. They had announced a boycott of her swearing-in ceremony if she became prime minister, and held a street protest in New Delhi on Tuesday.

Mrs. Gandhi is the Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

An emotional and extremely upset Congress Party tried to persuade the leader who led them to an unexpected victory to stay on.

Thousands of supporters rallied outside Mrs. Gandhi's home, lying down in the streets and torching effigies of her Hindu nationalist opponents. One supporter even threatened to commit suicide. Some lawmakers were in tears.

As the drama unfolded, Communist Party leader, Sitaram Yechury, said consultations were on to choose a new leader for a Congress-led coalition government. Leftist parties have pledged support to a new coalition. ?All of us, we are in consultation and we want an alternative government to assume office at the earliest,? he said.

India's former finance minister and economist, Manmohan Singh is being named as a possible prime minister, but that decision will have to be sealed by the Congress Party and its allies. Mr. Singh ushered in free market reforms in India in 1991.