Sonia turns down prime ministership

Updated on May 23, 2004 03:53 AM IST

Despite repeated pleas by Cong MPs, Sonia stuck to her decision. Moreover, the CPP meeting ended without electing a new leader.

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PTI | ByHT Political Bureau, New Delhi

With these words, Sonia Gandhi announced to the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) her decision not to become Prime Minister of India. It was a short message, read out in both English and Hindi. There was no mention in it of the BJP, and of its increasingly vicious campaign against her following the people's verdict.

In Parliament's Central Hall on Tuesday evening, the announcement drew howls of protest from her partymen. They wouldn't listen, they interrupted her again and again, and at one point she had to order them, “Bolne dijiye”. After she had finished, they took the microphone one by one for close to three hours to beg her to stay. Give or take a few tears, their messages were identical: "The votes that we got were votes for you, so please Madam, please don't go."

It did not help. Sonia had begun by imploring colleagues to "understand the force of (her) conviction", and to recognise that she "would not reverse" her decision. At the end of the meeting, she repeated that if the party trusted her, it needed to allow her to take her decisions.

The CPP meeting ended without a decision on who would replace Sonia as the alliance's prime ministerial candidate. Nor was there any word on the subject till late Tuesday night. But there were clear indications that Sonia wanted Manmohan Singh as India's next Prime Minister.

It was a preference that appeared to have the strong approval of the markets: in a dramatic turnaround from manic Monday, the Sensex climbed 372 points. The market recovery was just one part of the long, as yet unfinished story that began on Monday.

On Tuesday afternoon, Sonia had met President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam at Rashtrapati Bhawan, taking Manmohan Singh along. It is likely, though not certain, that she gave Kalam an idea of what was on her mind at the meeting.

Back at 10 Janpath, Sonia met senior colleagues. She told them that she had decided she would not be Prime Minister. And that she would not, unlike on Monday evening, reconsider.

She told them to work out a strategy to tackle the Congress's allies and ensure government formation.

Soon afterward, M.L. Fotedar and Natwar Singh met Laloo Prasad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan. They gave the Bihar leaders Sonia's reasons.

First, that her children, Rahul and Priyanka, did not want their mother to take up a prime ministership that she did not want.

Second, that she was extremely hurt and upset with the BJP's tasteless campaign against her ethnicity and was unwilling to precipitate a situation that had the potential to split the nation.

And third, that given the sentiments being whipped up, a government with her at the helm would have problems from Day 1.

A series of meetings followed. Pranab Mukherjee, Manmohan Singh, Arjun Singh and Ghulam Nabi Azad met the CPI-M's Harkishen Singh Surjeet. At one point, Paswan got in touch with Priyanka and requested her to intercede. When she told him Sonia's mind was made up, Paswan reportedly insisted: "Tum bahadur bachche ho, tum unko mana logey."

By late afternoon, there was panic, and a truly dramatic outpouring of support for Sonia outside 10 Janpath. Congress workers and leaders descended in thousands outside the barricaded entrance, waving flags and shouting slogans into TV microphones.

Those protesting outside Sonia's residence eventually sounded like the MPs who spoke later in Central Hall. They were in denial. They expressed shock. And none of them seemed to understand why their leader had done this to them. They would have had the night to sleep over it.

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