It was "very obvious" that Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi would be India's prime minister one day, but for now Manmohan Singh remained the prime ministerial candidate, party leader Salman Khurshid has said.
In a wide-ranging interview in New Delhi, Khurshid also said that Muslims were leaning towards the Congress in Uttar Pradesh but would vote for it only if they felt it was in a position to win, and so an electoral tie-up was needed with the Samajwadi Party ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.
Khurshid, a former chief of the Uttar Pradesh Congress and a former minister of state for external affairs, was asked if Rahul Gandhi, son of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, would be the next prime minister of the country.
"Rahul Gandhi is going to play a very major role in these elections," the Congress veteran told IANS, referring to the coming Lok Sabha elections.
"I think we have to let him make up his mind. He would make up his mind or his mother will decide for him. He doesn't seem to be in a hurry. He knows what he is doing and he is enjoying it.
"Yet, it is very obvious that one day he is going to be prime minister, I hope he becomes a very young PM, why not? I think it is very clear that he is amongst top leaders and it is also very clear that he strongly believes in a sense of propriety and democracy.
"Let the appropriate time come, he will be anointed or he would step forward to take (up) the responsibility," Khurshid said. "Right now he is trying to build the party. We should appreciate him for that."
So who is the Congress' prime ministerial candidate this time?
"I think we have a very good prime minister today and we have not been told that he is retiring," Khurshid said. "We have a prime minister, therefore we don't need a candidate. He is a highly respected man; he has steered us in a very difficult time."
Khurshid said the need of the hour in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, was a tie-up between the Congress and the Samajwadi Party, which came together last year after years of bitter rivalry.
Arguing that people were inclined to vote along caste lines and that Muslims held the trump card, Khurshid said the winner in Uttar Pradesh would be determined by which way the Muslim vote went.
"So, in order to revive our fortune, we will have to understand the equation of caste along with the Muslim vote. I think this is a long process and cannot be done overnight.
"Muslims are undecided, but they are more with the Congress now than in the past 10 years. They would be willing to go along with the Congress, but they want to see a winnable position. They will vote for the Congress only if it wins. That's why an alliance with the Samajwadi Party is very important for us."
Khurshid insisted that a Congress-Samajwadi Party tie-up in Uttar Pradesh "will have a far-reaching impact on the fortune of both the parties... Moreover this alliance will not only impact the Congress but also (decide)
what happens to the next (central) government and what happens to the country. I think both the parties understand this sense of responsibility".
"Having said that, I think this is not an easy proposition. We haven't worked with each other for years. It would be a very sad thing if we don't have an alliance."
Khurshid said he had no idea why film star Sanjay Dutt, sister of Congress MP Priya Dutt, had reportedly consented to fight the elections on the Samajwadi Party ticket from Lucknow. "It is his choice."
He said anyone contesting in Lucknow, now represented in parliament by former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, would have to be high-profile. The Congress was considering some names, he added.
Khurshid said he disagreed with those who felt that aggression was good in politics.
"Everything is not an 'akhara'," he said. "People think politics is an akhara, but politics is not necessarily an akhara."