Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray on Sunday expressed admiration for BJP leader Sushma Swaraj and termed her best suited to becoming the next Prime Minister but her party played down his remarks and said any such decision would be taken at an appropriate time.
Thackeray said in the third part of his marathon four-part interview published in the party mouthpiece Saamna on Sunday that Sushma Swaraj was the most suited leader for the top post.
"Presently, she is the most suited to the top post. I think she will make a dashing Prime Minister," he said.
"There is a long queue for the post of Prime Minister. Only Sushma (Swaraj) is deserving, intelligent and could make an excellent choice for Prime Minister," Thackeray said, seeming to curb hopes of other aspirants from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) like Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar or Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi.
Thackeray's comments, which seem to indicate his party would not favour Modi as NDA's Prime Ministerial candidate, come after similar sentiments from Janata Dal-United.
Modi is among BJP leaders along with Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and party chief Nitin Gadkari who are seen in party circles as potential Prime Ministerial candidates. Party veteran Lal Krishna Advani has also not ruled himself out.
Reacting to Thackeray's remarks, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Vice-President Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said it was a matter of joy that the BJP had several leaders who were capable of being Prime Minister and Sushma Swaraj, who is leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha, was one of them.
"It is matter of joy for us that there are leaders who are capable, acceptable for the post of Prime Minister and who are effective... Party will take a decision in consultation with NDA and announce it at an appropriate time," Naqvi told IANS.
Party leader Balbir Punj also welcomed Thackeray's remarks and took a dig at the Congress, saying BJP was not dependent on a single family for its existence.
BJP leaders privately expressed surprise over the timing of Thackeray's pitch for Sushma Swaraj and said it was possibly the first time an ally has openly backed a party leader for the Prime Minister's post.
If other allies also comment openly about their choice, the party may be forced to settle the leadership issue earlier than expected, they said, adding the BJP has also to factor in possibility of Rahul Gandhi emerging as Congress' possible candidate in 2014.
The Congress, however, hit out at the BJP over the perceived jostling among senior leaders to emerge as Prime Ministerial candidate.
Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari said the NDA "suffers from malady of anointing prime mnisters without waiting for people's verdict" and urged BJP not to count its chickens before they hatch.
Thackeray also neatly side-stepped Advani's recent musings that the country's next government would be formed by a non-United Progressive Alliance (UPA), non-NDA front.
"He (Advani) is nine months younger than me. Though I am senior to him and I have a right, I find it difficult to say anything against him. What can we expect from persons like him? Wonder why he said such a thing... Let it be," Thackeray said, trailing off.
He also dismissed other third front aspirants like Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati, Sharad Pawar or Jayalalithaa, saying they only wanted the 'chair' and none of them had made any significant contribution to the nation.