NEW DELHI Lal Krishna Advani, the 83-year-old veteran of opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said on Wednesday he did not want to run for prime minister again in elections due by 2014, a move that frees up younger candidates to challenge the government.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's coalition has struggled to contain anger against high food prices and graft scandals since winning a second term in 2009. But the BJP-led opposition has often looked weak, plagued by infighting and lacking a credible leader.
Advani, who built his career on Hindu revivalism, stepped out of the limelight after fighting a losing campaign against Singh. But a planned nationwide tour against corruption sparked talk of a return to the frontline.
His withdrawal paves the way for other BJP heavyweights to challenge the ruling Congress party.
These include Narendra Modi, the popular but divisive chief minister of Gujarat, praised for fostering industrial growth and economic development but accused by some of abetting religious riots.
Other candidates could include Sushma Swaraj, opposition leader of the Lok Sabha.
"I am happier to be a part of the party. I do not want to become the prime minister," Advani told reporters.
Advani's campaign against Singh was criticised for appearing at times shrill and out of touch and for not mobilising the party's middle class base. On the stump, he famously branded Singh as the country's weakest ever prime minister, a criticism that sparked a backlash of support for Singh.
The BJP has sought to take advantage of widespread discontent against Singh's government, especially in urban areas, that has sparked massive protests and lifted social activists protesting against corruption to national prominence.
Modi embarked on a three-day fast over the weekend to promote "harmony", which was seen as a way of helping revamp the image of a leader accused by critics of complicity in religious riots that killed at least 1,000 people in 2002.
Such a gesture carried national resonance as it followed the high-profile hunger strike of Gandhian activist Anna Hazare that mobilised thousands to demonstrate on the streets against the government. Modi's critics, including members of Hazare's inner circle, branded it a cynical PR exercise.
Advani's nationwide "yatra", or journey, was greeted with similar scepticism by his critics.
Veteran political analyst Kuldip Nayar said Advani's announcement had cleared up uncertainty about whether he would run.
"Advani has removed a misunderstanding, so that is a good thing," he said. "Now there is all the more reason that he would project Narendra Modi as a candidate."
(Editing by Nick Macfie)