Chidambaram election shy as party popularity slides

NEW DELHI Fri Mar 21, 2014 6:16pm IST

Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram speaks during a joint news conference with Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Governor Raghuram Rajan (not pictured) in New Delhi March 7, 2014. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram speaks during a joint news conference with Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Governor Raghuram Rajan (not pictured) in New Delhi March 7, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has declined to stand in upcoming national elections, adding to a sense of gloom in the Congress party as a growing list of high-profile cabinet members shies away from facing voters at the ballot box.

After ten years in office, the Congress party is trailing in opinion polls. Thanks to its failure to check corruption, cool inflation and spark an economic revival, it is widely expected to be defeated in the election that begins on April 7.

Chidambaram, a Harvard-trained former lawyer, 68, is credited with overseeing India's years of fastest growth.

But he was less successful in his third stint in the finance ministry from 2012, a period of economic malaise that fuelled the slide in his party's popularity.

"He has seen victory and he has also seen results which have not been in his favour," said his son, Karti Chidambaram, who confirmed the decision, and will now contest from his father's constituency in Tamil Nadu.

Asked by NDTV if his father feared defeat, he replied, "That's not a correct comment about the reasons why he has opted out." But he did not elaborate.

In the past, Chidambaram has said older leaders should make way for a new generation.

Government heavyweights, including defence minister A.K. Antony and shipping minister G.K. Vasan, have also shown reluctance to fight the elections, while a senior party leader has admitted the party was going through an "adverse phase".

"Obviously, the situation is not very good for the Congress," said political analyst Neerja Chaudhary. "It is not surprising that (Chidambaram) doesn't want to contest what is obviously a losing battle."

Chidambaram's decision not to stand does not necessarily spell the end of his political career. Many leaders, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, hold seats in the upper house of parliament, elected by state assembly lawmakers.

Chidambaram has represented his Tamil Nadu constituency for the past decade. But a slender margin of victory in 2009 has made re-election from that seat uncertain, especially as the Congress struggles to find alliance partners in the state.

Investors who once championed the market-friendly reformer Chidambaram as a good candidate for prime minister are now cheering for pro-business opposition leader Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The BJP called Chidambaram's decision a surrender before the fight.

"This is a symbolic, but important, step, where the finance minister is allowed to run away without answering questions," said BJP spokeswoman Nirmala Sitharaman.

(Reporting by Rajesh Kumar Singh; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Clarence Fernandez)

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