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India's Sonia Gandhi stalls son's candidacy for PM

NEW DELHI -- India's ruling party was putting on a united front Friday at a mass rally after its leader Sonia Gandhi stalled a push to name her son Rahul as prime ministerial candidate for looming elections.

Thousands of Congress party members have gathered in the capital New Delhi for a conclave which is being billed as an opportunity to plot a way to avoid humiliation when the country goes to the polls in May.

After a decade in power, Congress is lagging well behind the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in opinion polls, with voters turned off by an economic slowdown and a string of corruption scandals.

With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh retiring after two terms, the party had been expected to nominate the 43-year-old Rahul as its choice for premier at the conclave.

But the prospects were dashed when Sonia Gandhi, the powerful party president and senior-most figure in the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, opposed such a move at a meeting on Thursday night.

“All the members of the CWC (Congress Working Committee) wanted him to be announced as the PM candidate but the Congress president intervened,” the party's general secretary Janardan Dwivedi told reporters.

“She said: 'This is not the party's tradition (to announce its PM candidate before elections). Just because some party has declared the PM candidate, does not mean that Congress will do the same'.”

While it had already been agreed that Rahul would lead the Congress campaign, there has been a growing push within the party to name him as candidate for prime minister after the BJP declared Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its choice back in September.

Since Modi's elevation, the Hindu nationalist BJP has stretched its lead in the polls over Congress.

Reports said that several senior Congress figures, including cabinet ministers, told Sonia Gandhi that the party had to break with tradition and project a face for prime minister in the wake of the BJP's strategy.

However Sonia, who led the party to victory in the 2004 election but did not become prime minister, baulked at aping the opposition.

Analysts have said the BJP's decision to project the divisive Modi as its choice for premier could limit its room for maneuver in post-election coalition negotiations -- a trap that Sonia Gandhi was keen to avoid.

There has also been speculation in the Indian press that Congress' defeat will be so comprehensive that the Gandhi family does not want to kill off Rahul's nascent political career.

But the BJP said that Congress had pulled back from nominating Rahul in order to “duck” comparisons with Modi.

While Rahul is the scion of India's leading political clan, Modi is the son of a tea-stall owner who has been at the helm of one of India's most economically successful states for a decade.

“They have not presented him as the prime ministerial candidate, because if they had done so there would have been comparisons, analysis vis-a-vis Narendra Modi and all surveys show that Rahul Gandhi stands nowhere in that,” said Ravi Shankar Prasad, one of the BJP's leaders in parliament.

Rahul is already number two in the Congress as deputy president to his mother and he is also chief strategist for the national elections. Both were expected to address members of the conclave.

Dwivedi said that Rahul had told members of the committee that he was willing to fulfill any role that was bestowed on him by the party.

“Rahul Gandhi said that: 'I have said before also. I am a dedicated worker of party, whatever responsibility party gives me, I will carry it out',” he said.

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Indian Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi, left, Indian Prime Minister and Congress Leader Manmohan Singh, center, and Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi, second right, pose inside a garland during the All India Congress Committee (AICC) meeting in New Delhi on Friday, Jan. 17. (AFP)

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