| Sonia announces her decision on Tuesday. (AFP)
New Delhi, May 18: A tearful Sonia Gandhi today drew back from the chair before the last step, becoming the first democratically elected leader to decline the post of the Prime Minister.
Appealing to her beseeching supporters to allow her to make her own decision, she said she was listening to the call of her “inner voice”.
But a chaotic three-hour meeting of the Congress parliamentary party she convened as a day of swirling rumours wore into evening did not permit her to name a successor.
Sonia first read out a speech narrating her reasons for refusing the post. Fighting to make herself heard above indignant shouts from the MPs, she pleaded: “I request you to accept my decision and to recognise that I will not reverse it.”
She had come prepared to the meeting to propose the name of Manmohan Singh as CPP leader and Prime Minister, but Congress members stayed her hand for the night with a resolution asking her to reconsider.
“In the light of the sentiments expressed by members of this Congress parliamentary party and taking into account the unanimity of opinion, this house requests Sonia Gandhi to reconsider her decision in the best interest of the country and the Congress party,” it said.
Sonia responded: “You should trust me and allow me to take my own decision.”
Under pressure from the MPs, the resolution first moved by Pranab Mukherjee — authorising “Sonia Gandhi to take an appropriate decision” — had to be amended to keep open the possibility of reconsideration.
It looked unlikely Sonia would change her mind, in which case Manmohan is expected to take over. The Congress’ allies have been sounded on the choice.
Another meeting of the CPP is expected tomorrow and — if Sonia does not change her mind — she is expected to propose Manmohan as successor there.
Senior Congress leaders were still looking for rays of hope in every comment she made.
“I have listened to your views, your pain and anguish on the decision I have taken. I am aware that I am causing anguish to you but I think if you trust me, allow me to take my decision,” Sonia told the MPs.
Senior leader R.K. Dhawan said: “It is very difficult to interpret her concluding remarks.”
Arjun Singh, the last speaker at the meeting, said: “I only trust that she does reconsider her decision.”
In the morning, she had met President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam with Manmohan and there was a hint of the drama that unfolded later in the day at the time itself.
First the meeting was postponed, then she came out to say letters of support from allies would only be given tomorrow.
As rumours started from the afternoon that she had declined, CPM leader Jyoti Basu said her children Rahul and Priyanka, fearing for her life, did not want her to be Prime Minister.
Between the election victory and today’s decision, there was also an escalated campaign by the BJP and the Sangh parivar about her foreign origin. The National Democratic Alliance had decided to boycott her swearing-in.
Whether or not this influenced her decision is not known, but Rahul said she made up her mind herself. “I can firmly say that no one in India could have taken such a decision. Had I been in her place, I would also not have been able to do so,” he added.
“As an MP, I think she should become Prime Minister, but as a son, I respect my mother’s decision.”
He and Priyanka have been requested by Congress members to make their mother change her decision. Priyanka said: “We will go home and discuss it.... She (Sonia) will think about it but I can’t say anything about what her decision would be.”
She said her mother had heeded the voice of her conscience and had acted in keeping with Indian culture and tradition.
Across the country, anguished Congress supporters demonstrated in her support. One leader threatened to shoot himself with a pistol in New Delhi. “Call Sonia Gandhi! Tell her I will kill myself if she doesn’t become Prime Minister!” he shouted before being disarmed.