A day after Italian-born Sonia Gandhi led Congress to a victory over Hindu nationalists, a consensus has been building that she would be India's next prime minister.
Congress party leaders and political analysts agreed on Friday that Gandhi, 57, deserved the premiership of the world's largest democracy, and the party said coalition partners accepted this.
"All the parties have been saying, 'It is for the Congress to decide who the leaders should be and we will support the candidate,'" Congress general secretary Oscar Fernandes told
Kamal Nath, another Congress general secretary, credited Gandhi with engineering the come-from-behind rout of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's Hindu nationalists.
"This election was between Sonia Gandhi and Vajpayee. The people have decided to send Vajpayee home. That is what the mandate of the people is," Nath said.
Incoming Congress MPs are due to meet on Saturday to select their leader in an indication of their choice for prime minister. Congress will rely on regional parties and communists to secure a parliamentary majority.
In a surprise turnaround for India's grand old party, the Congress bagged 145 of the 539 seats declared in the April/May elections, but with the support of pre-poll allies and the leftists, the Congress-led coalition would have 278 seats, six more than needed for a majority.
The Hindu nationalist coalition of Vajpayee, who called the election early, won 186 seats. Soon after the election results began coming in on Thursday, Congress leaders pitched Gandhi for the top job.
"Sonia Gandhi is the leader of the Congress party. We want that our party chief should become the prime minister," senior Congress official Ambika Soni said.
According to Congress, Gandhi's "foreign origins" which became a key campaign issue for the Hindu nationalists who argued it should disqualify her from the premiership, had been settled by India's electorate.
"The mandate rejected Vajpayee and his government and was for the Congress and Sonia. If people have voted for her and elected her, she has all the right to be prime minister," said Singh.
The Hindu nationalist coalition
of Vajpayee has won 186 seats
Political analyst Yashwant Deshmukh agreed. "The Congress is the single largest party in parliament and this is due to Sonia Gandhi's almost single-handed campaign in the runup to the polls," she said.
Deshmukh said the question of political allies feeling uncomfortable with Gandhi's foreign origins was no longer a hurdle.
"The communists want to keep the Hindu nationalists out of government at any cost. Many of its leaders have been publicly saying they have no objections to Sonia becoming the prime minister. So, it seems certain she will."
The Hindustan Times said on Friday that with most obstacles to Gandhi becoming prime minister out of the way, the only hitch might be her own reluctance.
At a press conference late on Thursday, Gandhi was non-committal.
"We are clear about one thing - the prime minister, president, vice president and other high offices in the country should be held by people of Indian origin"
In her biography, journalist Rasheed Kidwai noted Gandhi's vehement opposition to her late husband Rajiv joining politics.
In 1991, she resisted pressure from the Congress party to take over as chief after Rajiv's assassination during an election campaign. It was only seven years later that she finally gave in to demands by the party.
"Gandhi could have announced she was staking claim to premiership yesterday (Thursday). But she did not," said Kidwai.
Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), however, continued on Friday to insist Gandhi was unfit to govern India because of her foreign roots. "We are not opposed to Sonia Gandhi as an individual," said BJP president Venkaiah Naidu.
"But we are clear about one thing - the prime minister, president, vice president and other high offices in the country
should be held by people of Indian origin."