Tuesday, May 18, 2004

BOMBAY — Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born leader of India’s largest political party, stunned the country yesterday by refusing to accept the post of prime minister that party members and allies had begged her to take.

Few had suspected Mrs. Gandhi would balk at the chance to lead the country she has called home for more than three decades. Her turnabout punctuated a bitter election season that saw her lead the Congress party to an upset victory over its Hindu nationalist rivals.

“I was always certain that if I ever found myself in the position that I am in today, that I would follow my inner voice,” Mrs. Gandhi told Congress party members inside Parliament’s cavernous central hall. “Today, that voice tells me I must humbly decline this post.”

“Power in itself has never attracted me, nor has position been my goal,” she said, as shouting party members mobbed her and begged her to reconsider.

Hundreds of party workers massed outside Mrs. Gandhi’s home in New Delhi, waving Indian flags and posters of her family. Some wrote letters to her in blood; one man stood for ten minutes with a revolver pressed to his head, threatening suicide if she didn’t reconsider. He fired once into the air before police disarmed him.

Mrs. Gandhi, 57, would have been the fourth member of the Nehru-Gandhi clan to hold the post of prime minister. Her husband, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, was assassinated by a suicide bomber in 1991. Her mother-in-law, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was gunned down by her bodyguards in 1984. Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajiv Gandhi’s grandfather, was India’s first prime minister.

Mrs. Gandhi was expected to nominate the mild-mannered Manmohan Singh, 71, as head of the party’s parliamentary wing and thus as the next prime minister of India. Mr. Singh, a former finance minister who began the liberalization of the Indian economy in the early 1990s, is a Sikh, and would be India’s first non-Hindu prime minister.

Mr. Singh, wearing his customary light blue turban, looked on impassively as dozens of legislators, some near tears, took turns asking Mrs. Gandhi to change her mind.

India’s stock markets recovered from a two-day crash on news that Mrs. Gandhi would step aside for Mr. Singh. Bombay’s benchmark stock index rose 8.3 percent yesterday after losing 11 percent of its value Monday on fears Mrs. Gandhi’s leftist allies would stop the sale of profitable government-owned businesses.

Mrs. Gandhi, an Indian citizen since 1983, had been publicly ambiguous about her future role since her upset victory last week. Monday night, party leaders were sure she had overcome rumored second thoughts, despite opposition from the outgoing Hindu nationalist-led coalition of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to a foreign-born woman at India’s helm.

Leaders of Mr. Vajpayee’s defeated Bharatiya Janata Party had promised to boycott Mrs. Gandhi’s inauguration as prime minister. Others had planned street protests.

“The nation will be saved from dishonor” by Mrs. Gandhi’s decision, said Sushma Swaraj, the information minister in the Vajpayee government who had sworn to resign from Parliament rather than serve under Mrs. Gandhi.

Jyoti Basu, a senior communist leader, said Mrs. Gandhi’s children, Rahul and Priyanka, had asked her to step aside over fears she would be assassinated.

“The children have said, ‘We have lost our father, we do not want to lose our mother,’” Mr. Basu told reporters.

Rahul Gandhi, 33, was elected to Parliament in the recent voting. Priyanka Gandhi, 32, was her mother’s campaign manager.

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