Foreign-Born Gandhi Drops Bid to Become PM

By Deepak Mahaan | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

New Delhi ( - In an unprecedented move, the Italian-born prime minister-designate of India's Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi, has declined to take the position, saying she did not want to divide the country on the issue of her foreign origin.

Gandhi led her party to an unexpected victory in India's recent elections and was due to be sworn in on Wednesday morning, with the backing of Congress and its coalition partners.

But critics, including the defeated Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), argued that having a foreign-born premier would endanger India's security.

Many BJP leaders criticized Congress for not finding any Indian suitable for the post and some had threatened to launch demonstrations around the country against her candidacy.

Her decision to bow out, which took most people by surprise, was conveyed to top party functionaries on Tuesday afternoon.

Gandhi made it clear that she was not interested in occupying the top chair and would continue her efforts to form a stable and secular government.

"I request you to respect my decision. I have taken the stance based on my inner voice," she told a meeting of the party's parliamentarians later in the evening.

Gandhi insisted that she was not acting under "blackmail from any party" and told lawmakers she would not change her decision.

She is reported to have proposed former finance minister, Manmohan Singh, as her choice for the premier's post.

A renowned economist with stints at World Bank and the Reserve Bank of India, Singh is credited with ushering in an era of economic liberalization in 1991.

The announcement led to frenzied scenes outside the Congress head office and Gandhi's residence, with some party workers threatening to kill themselves if she did not relent.

A leader of an allied communist party, Somnath Chatterjee, blamed a "campaign of vilification" for her decision, saying some opponents were trying to overturn the voters' verdict.

Chatterjee also claimed that Gandhi's son and daughter, Rahul and Priyanka, who campaigned extensively, were against their mother taking up the post, fearing for her safety.

Gandhi's husband and mother-in-law - former prime ministers Rajiv and Indira - were both assassinated in office, in 1991 and 1984 respectively.

Political opponents charge that Sonia Gandhi only bothered to acquire Indian citizenship when Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister, 18 years after their 1969 marriage.

Although courts have certified her citizenship valid, many opponents maintain that the holding of senior positions should be barred to naturalized citizens.

Congress has ruled India for 45 of its first 50 years of independence, its support largely based around the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, India's "first family."

Sonia Gandhi was reported to have accepted a political role reluctantly, only accepting leadership of Congress seven years after her husband's assassination. Earlier, she had not been keen on Rajiv going into politics, which he only did in 1980 after his brother and heir apparent, Sanjay, died in a plane crash.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.