Fear of assassination has forced Italian-born Sonia Gandhi to refuse to be India’s next prime minister.
She told her Congress party and its allies today that she would ”humbly decline” to be the next premier of the world’s largest democracy.
Both her husband Rajiv and mother-in-law Indira were assassinated while serving as prime minister of India.
Her foreign origins also played a factor.
“A foreigner becoming the prime minister of the country will put national security and the country’s self-respect in jeopardy,” said Uma Bharti, a former minister in the outgoing government.
The announcement stunned her supporters and the nation.
“The post of prime has not been my aim,” she told members of her Congress party in the central hall of Parliament in New Delhi.
“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.”
Her Congress party and its allies trounced the Hindu-nationalist party of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his Democratic National Alliance in national elections that ended last week.
The new Congress MPs shouted and pleaded with Gandhi to change her mind. She had to stop several times to get the audience to quiet down.
“I request you to accept my decision,” she said, adding that it was irreversible.
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 communist allies to peel back market-driven reforms that have made India’s economy boom.
“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.”
Financial markets that suffered a record crash a day earlier bounced back as speculation grew that Gandhi would step aside.
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.
Singh was the architect of India’s economic liberalisation program in 1991, and many believe he would be able to strike a balance between demands for leftists and policies that benefit businesses.
Somnath Chatterjee, an MP 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 rumours that her children are against her becoming prime minister, maybe because of security reasons,” he said.
Sonia Gandhi’s husband Rajiv was killed by a suicide bomber in 1991 and mother-in-law Indira was shot to death by her own bodyguards in 1984.
“This is a woman whose husband was killed by terrorists, a woman whose mother-in-law died of gunshot wounds. Of course, there are security concerns,” said Jayanti Natarajan, senior Congress party leader.
Some Hindu nationalists took to the streets today 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,” said Uma Bharti, a former sports minister in the outgoing government.