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Archive for Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Sonia Gandhi abandons bid for prime minister

May 19, 2004

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— Sonia Gandhi said Tuesday she would "humbly decline" to be the next prime minister of India, a decision that stunned her supporters and followed Hindu nationalist outrage over the prospect of a foreign-born woman leading the nation.

Gandhi, an Italian who became an Indian citizen 21 years ago when she married former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, did not say whom she would nominate for the post. The favorite appeared to be Manmohan Singh, the architect of India's economic liberalization program during the last Congress-led government from 1991 to 1996.

"The post of prime minister has not been my aim," Gandhi told Congress party members in Parliament. "I was always certain that if ever I found myself in the position I am in today, I would follow my inner voice. I humbly decline the post."

Gandhi's Congress party and allies trounced the Hindu-nationalist party of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his Democratic National Alliance in national elections that ended last week. They were swept to power by millions of impoverished Indians angered over being left out of the country's economic boom.

Gandhi would likely have led a coalition government dependent on the outside support of two communist parties, who oppose continuing economic reforms such as privatizing state-run companies.

That prospect spooked investors and caused financial markets to tumble Monday, when the Bombay Stock Exchange registered its biggest drop in its 129-year history.

The benchmark index rose Tuesday on news that Singh could be the new party candidate for prime minister, though it was unclear how his coalition would be any different from the one Gandhi might have led.

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