In India, speculation rife that another Gandhi might be ready to step aside

B Penny MacRae ,AFP

NEW DELHI — India’s patrician finance minister P. Chidambaram is fast emerging as a potential prime ministerial candidate amid fresh doubts about the aspirations of ruling party heir-apparent Rahul Gandhi. Last week, Rahul, the shy scion of the Nehru-Gandhi clan and long presumed to be a Congress prime minister-in-waiting, declared that the top job was “not my priority” and that he wanted to focus on building up the party. The question of who the embattled ruling Congress party could run in Rahul’s place has become urgent with elections due by May 2014 and 80-year-old Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expected to step down. The name on many people’s lips is pro-market reformer Chidambaram — a wealthy southern lawyer from a land-owning family with an MBA from Harvard. He has presented eight national budgets in a two-decade political career. “Prime Minister Chidambaram?” was the headline splashed across the latest cover of national news magazine Outlook as it delved into what has become the hottest topic of gossip among the capital’s elite. Chidambaram, who was renamed to be finance minister last year and helped drive through a reform blitz in September, heads “the probable list,” said leading news portal Firstpost.

The politician, named as home minister to help rebuild India’s security confidence after the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks, has become the go-to trouble-shooter for the corruption-tainted Congress. Analysts note that the intentions of 42-year-old Rahul, recently named to the number two post in Congress behind his mother Sonia, were still unclear but his perceived dithering is in danger of harming the party’s prospects. After a second term in power characterized by corruption scandals and a massive slowdown in the economy, Congress’s poll ratings are dismal and it is in need of reinvigoration, they say. The Italian-born Sonia, who led the party to its 2004 return to power, famously declined the prime minister’s job — winning adulation for her act of “renunciation” — while remaining India’s most powerful politician.