At a major gathering of the Indian National Congress yesterday, Sonia Gandhi announced that her son Rahul would not be nominated for the post of prime minister in upcoming elections, signaling a key decision by the family that has dominated this country's politics for decades.
"We took a decision on Rahul yesterday, and the decision is final," she said.
The announcement provoked chants of "Rahul PM" from party loyalists that were so sustained that Rahul Gandhi, the party's vice president, finally took the podium himself and held his hands in the air, telling the audience to remain calm and promising to share "what is in my heart" in an address later in the day.
Although word of the decision was made public after a party gathering on Thursday, some commentators saw enough ambiguity in the scene to question whether Sonia Gandhi had in fact given the final word. When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh mentioned Rahul Gandhi in his own remarks, the chants of "Rahul" resumed.
Damaged by a series of corruption scandals and a flagging economy, Congress looks unlikely to retain control of the next Parliament, especially after deep losses in four state assembly elections in December.
In her remarks, Sonia Gandhi warned that victory by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party risked dividing the country along religious lines.
Rahul Gandhi's role in the contest had remained stubbornly unclear for months, even as Narendra Modi, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, has fine-tuned his image as a take-charge candidate. Modi has seemed eager to highlight the contrast between the two men, casting himself as a self-made man, the son of a tea stall owner, and Gandhi as a cosseted "shehjada," or prince.
Taking a back seat ahead of general elections could allow him to escape damage as a potential candidate if Congress performs badly. Rahul has shown intense interest in reorganizing the party's structure, including introducing internal competition for positions within the party's youth wing, and insiders say he may hope to immerse himself in that work after the May elections.