New Delhi: The Congress ended all speculation regarding Rahul Gandhi’s prime ministerial candidature by formally announcing on Thursday that he would not be named the party’s prime ministerial candidate, but will lead the campaign in the general election this year.

In the process the Congress may have implicitly exposed itself to the charge that it is attempting to shield Gandhi from a direct confrontation with Gujarat chief minister and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and from being blamed for a possible loss in the election as predicted by most polls.

The Congress’ announcement has robbed the BJP of a key element of its script—the party has sought to portray the coming election as a face-off between Modi and Gandhi.

It was widely expected that Gandhi would be named as the party’s prime ministerial candidate at Thursday’s meeting of the Congress Working Committee, and endorsed at Friday’s meeting of the All India Congress Committee. Gandhi himself, in an interview earlier in the week to Dainik Bhaskar said he was ready to take on any post the party asked him to. Several leaders of the party too, wanted him named the Congress’ prime ministerial candidate.

To be sure, there was a school of thought within the party that Gandhi be insulated from a possible loss in the election and also not be put in a position where he would be in the line of fire of the rampaging Modi campaign, as Mint reported on Thursday.

The decision to not name Gandhi seems to have been taken by Congress president Sonia Gandhi. The Congress does not have a tradition of naming a prime ministerial candidate before the elections, she was reported as saying at the meeting, by Janardan Dwivedi, general secretary of the party.

Interestingly, Sonia Gandhi herself had named Manmohan Singh her party’s prime ministerial candidate ahead of the 2009 elections and had, in December, after her party’s defeat in elections to the state assemblies of Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan said the Congress too would name a prime ministerial candidate at the appropriate time.

Instead, on Thursday, she was reported as saying by Dwivedi that the Congress didn’t have to name a prime ministerial candidate just because someone else had done so.

“The Congress president also announced that the next election will be (contested) under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi," he added.

Dwivedi was evasive when asked whether Gandhi would become prime minister if the party ended up being in a position to form the government, resorting to cliches about Gandhi’s position as the party’s No.2 (after Sonia Gandhi) and its “leader of the future".

Congress leaders who did not wish to be identified maintained that a key reason for not naming Gandhi as the party’s prime ministerial candidate is to shield him from adverse publicity. The results of recent polls to state assemblies and opinion polls show a large anti-Congress wave gaining momentum ahead of the upcoming general election, and “Rahul Gandhi will be forced to carry the burden of unpopularity" against the party-led United Progressive Alliance government, they reasoned.

According to a person familiar with the development, the party is expected to come up with some populist measures on Friday when its leaders across the country meet in New Delhi to discuss preparations for the Lok Sabha elections.

The core group of the Congress has decided to demand to raise the number of subsidised cooking gas cylinders from nine to 12 per household and to revert to the earlier mechanism of delivering this subsidy through a reduced price (the current mechanism requires the customer to pay the full price, and then receive the subsidy into his or her Aadhaar-linked bank account).

The decision to not name Gandhi is consistent with the man’s own and his party’s position, said N. Bhaskara Rao, a Delhi-based political analyst and a long-term Congress observer.

“Here is a man who has been asked by the party to take over but he is not anxious to take up the post. He is waiting for the people’s mandate—this is what the party appears to be saying."

The BJP sees it differently.

“This announcement underlines that the Congress leadership is demoralized and a person who has been a Member of Parliament (MP) for the last 10 years is reluctant to own his party," Balbir Punj, vice-president of the BJP said.

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