The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) is ready to back Congress party president Sonia Gandhi or her MP son Rahul Gandhi as prime minister after the 2009 general elections, NCP leader and Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel has said.
"The Congress is the biggest party in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). There is no question of NCP, DMK or RJD (Rashtriya Janata Dal) or any other party coming close to their numbers."
"And if tomorrow Congress decides to nominate Mrs Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi it's not a question for NCP to decide," Patel, second in command in the NCP, said in the "Devil's Advocate" programme on the CNN-IBN television channel. The programme is to be broadcast on Sunday night.
Asked specifically whether the NCP would support Rahul Gandhi as prime minister, Patel replied: "If the UPA comes with majority and if the Congress party so chooses, what is the question? Why is this being debated?"
Patel emphasised that the issue of leadership rests squarely with the Congress. "It is purely for them to decide," he said.
Denying that a choice of Sonia Gandhi or Rahul for the top job would trigger dissent within the NCP, the civil aviation minister said: "The NCP gave Mrs Gandhi a letter of support for prime minister-ship (in 2004)." Nothing has changed since, he added.
Dismissing speculation that the NCP is keeping its options of an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Shiv Sena open, Patel said: "The BJP and the Shiv Sena could have accommodated us and I do know from first hand knowledge that they wanted us to join the government in Delhi with them and be part of a government with them in Maharashtra. But we said no."
NCP chief and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar earlier this month had voiced his preference for Manmohan Singh as prime minister for a second term, in case the UPA comes to power.
Pawar had expressed regret over the Congress' lack of commitment to coalition dharma and urged more interaction between the UPA allies.
"As a coalition, (the dharma) to be consulted, to be taken on board, is very important. I think that is being done but it should be done a little bit more so that this kind of misunderstanding should not arise," said Patel.
He said the NCP was disappointed that the Congress did not help its leader P.A Sangma in the recent Meghalaya elections.
The Congress fielded candidates against the NCP in the Meghalaya and Nagaland elections, sparking bitterness between the two sides.
"We feel Mr. Sangma, who is our leader, should have been given more accommodation by the Congress party," said Patel. "Some people working in the Congress may not have been very happy with Mr Sangma working for us," said Patel.
But he had praise for UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi.
"She has been very magnanimous and not shown any pettiness, no matter what impression may have been created. A limited issue of Meghalaya and Nagaland should not be looked upon as the totality of the relationship with the Congress or the NCP," said Patel.
In 1999, the Congress expelled Sharad Pawar, PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar for questioning the right of the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi to lead the party. That was when Pawar formed the NCP.