Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced on Friday that he would step down after the May 2014 general election, clearing the decks for Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi to be named the party's PM candidate.
With the All-India Congress Committee session scheduled for January 17, the clamour from within the party for Rahul's coronation is set to grow: Naming the 43-year-old would enable the party to present a clear alternative to the BJP's Narendra Modi.
The Nehru-Gandhi scion will then have a chance of becoming the fourth prime minister from India's most famous political family, but will have his task cut out for him after a disastrous set of assembly election results last month.
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“After the general election, I will hand the baton over to a new Prime Minister. I hope it will be a UPA chosen Prime Minister…I am confident that the new generation of our leaders will also guide this great nation successfully through the uncharted and uncertain waters of global change,” Singh told a press conference.
Congress sources told the Hindustan Times that while a final call on the announcement of Rahul’s elevation has not been taken yet, it is under “active consideration.”
"Whether Rahul will be named is no longer a question, the question now is when that announcement will be made," said one source.
For his part, Singh sidestepped repeated questions on whether Rahul should be declared the candidate but stressed that he had “outstanding credentials.”
In what appeared to be a farewell appearance before the media -- 250 journalists both Indian and foreign --Singh took a swing at Modi, a charismatic figure widely credited with energising the BJP rank and file.
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“Without discussing the merits of Narendra Modi, I sincerely believe that it will be disastrous for the country to have Modi as the PM,” adding that the Gujarat CM’s claim to be strong leader has not been borne out by his track record.
“"If by “strong Prime Minister”, you mean that you preside over a mass massacre of innocent citizens on the streets of Ahmedabad... I do not believe that sort of strength this country needs, least of all, in its Prime Minister,” said Singh, a reference to the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, which happened on Modi's watch.
An angry BJP struck back, with party president Rajnath Singh saying, “I condemn it with all the strength at my command. When the courts in Gujarat have exonerated him, the Supreme Court has declared him not guilty, and the CBI has cleared him of all charges, where is the question of blaming him for it?”
Read: Manmohan's comment on Modi laughable, says Rajnath
The Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley added, “This does not add to the dignity of the PM.”
READ: PM's press meet a farce, admission of failure: Jaitley
Singh, who as finance minister from 1991 to 1996 presided over the opening up of the Indian economy, became PM in 2004 when Congress president Sonia Gandhi declined the job. The second half of his tenure has been marred by scandals related to coal block and telecom allotments, rising prices and faltering growth.
The PM candidly admitted inadequacies on three fronts: Employment generation, inflation and combating corruption. But he said that history would judge him more kindly -- an assertion he made at least six times over the 75-minute interaction.
“I honestly believe that history will be kinder to me than the contemporary media or for that matter the Opposition in Parliament…when history is written we will come out unscathed,” he said.
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Singh added that given the circumstances, he was happy with the achievements –managing a difficult coalition for ten years, notching up economic growth of 7.6% on average, bettering rural wages and lives and putting more money in the hands of farmers. “The UPA Government performed better than the NDA Government,” the PM summed up.
The PM’s media address was influenced by Rahul's agenda for the election year that the latter had outlined at a FICCI conference recently: A social agenda supported by a commitment to market-led growth and stress on manufacturing. The PM – as had Rahul – said combating corruption was the top priority of the government and admitted that erratic environment clearances had become a roadblock to growth.
Read: PM accepts failure to check unemployment, inflation
Reactions: Who said what
CPM leader Sitaram Yechury
The Prime Minister has taken the right decision by ruling out a third term in office for himself, and added that India become a subordinate ally of the United States, by inking the controversial Indo-US nuclear deal. The policies which UPA-II has pursued, which he (PM) has followed, are disastrous for the country. There have been policies which have imposed unprecedented burdens on the people.
BJP president Rajnath Singh
I condemn this statement (on Modi) of the Prime Minister. It is very unfortunate that the Prime Minister is saying this even when the SIT and court have given him a clean chit.
Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal
It does not matter if Narendra Modi becomes the PM or Rahul Gandhi. They should not waste time fighting about it. The need of the hour is to focus on more important issues in the country, particularly corruption.
Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut
The press conference showed that Prime Minister is neither valued in the Congress party not in the government anymore. He is not fit to be PM.
Foreign Affairs minister Salman Khurshid
He (the prime minister) is only expressing here what we all feel very passionately as far as Rahul Gandhi is concerned and very strongly and bitterly as far as Narendra Modi is concerned.
JD(U) president Sharad Yadav said
PM's statements do not convince us. What he claims doesn't matter because the people do not accept this. The country has moved backwards during his tenure.
Shromani Akali Dal leader Naresh Gujral said
There is no way this country will elect a Congress PM for a third time. We all know how Congress is sinking. We have seen what happened in Delhi (polls). If it touches even 100 seats, it would be extremely lucky.