NEW DELHI Rahul Gandhi, the scion of a dynasty that has led India for most of its history, suggested in an interview published on Tuesday he was ready to be prime minister if his party won forthcoming elections, his first indication that he wants the job.
Gandhi's Congress party heads the coalition that has governed India for a decade. Buffeted by corruption scandals, low economic growth and high inflation, the party is facing strong opposition challenges in the election due by May.
"I am a soldier of Congress. Whatever order is given to me I will follow it. Whatever Congress says, I will follow it," Gandhi, 43, said in a rare interview with the Hindi-language Dainik Bhaskar, which describes itself as India's most widely read daily.
Gandhi, whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather were all prime ministers in post-independence India, made the remarks ahead of a party meeting on Friday focusing on the election.
Current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh this month ruled out serving another term if his party won the election and threw his support to Gandhi, praising his "outstanding credentials".
Many party workers, including senior ministers, are pushing for Gandhi's name to be announced as prime ministerial candidate. A section of the party, however, thinks that would expose him to a confrontational campaign against opposition leader Narendra Modi, whose style is seen as more dynamic.
Gandhi said Congress does not traditionally announce prime ministerial candidates during a campaign, but said he would respect the party's decision.
If nominated, Gandhi would take on Modi, the candidate of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who is campaigning on a platform to end the red tape and graft that have bedevilled the Congress-led coalition.
Compared with the relatively untested Gandhi, Modi has years of experience as the chief minister of Gujarat, where he has built a reputation as an efficient, business-savvy administrator, though critics deride him as authoritarian.
Gandhi said a "one-man" government was not in the national interest. "The government should not function according to the whims and fancy of a single person," he told the newspaper.
MODI TOPS OPINION POLLS
Opinion polls put Modi in the lead, even as he has been unable to shake off allegations over anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002.
At least 1,000 people were killed, most of them Muslims. Modi denies wrongdoing and a Supreme Court investigation found no evidence to prosecute him.
The Congress meeting is also expected to inject life into its slow-moving campaign. At the same meeting last year, Rahul was made party vice-president. His mother, Sonia Gandhi is party president.
Congress leaders are also worried about the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), formed by an anti-corruption crusader less than a year ago. The AAP defeated Congress in New Delhi in a state election last month and plans to field candidates across India, increasing the chances of a weak coalition emerging from the vote.
Gandhi has in recent months railed against corruption to win back voters who backed the AAP and appeal to young audiences. He sought to distance himself from the AAP in the interview.
"Congress is a strong and progressive organisation which has changed the nature and role of politics in the country and we aim to continue the trend," he said.
"The Aam Aadmi Party has also worked toward this direction, but we are two different entities with different ideology and different style of working."
(Additional reporting by Manoj Kumar and Nigam Prusty; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Ron Popeski)
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