New Delhi: Indian political matriarch Sonia Gandhi on Friday refused to bow to her struggling party's pleas to nominate her son as its prime ministerial candidate in upcoming elections, which she called a battle to save the nation's secular identity.
A day after she rejected a clamour within the Congress party to declare Rahul Gandhi as its choice for premier at polls due in May, the Italian - born Sonia told followers there was no going back on the decision.
"We took a decision Rahul yesterday and that decision is final," she said in a speech that was interrupted several times with shouts of "Rahul for PM!"
"We meet today to signal that Congress is ready and prepared for the battle ahead," she told a party conclave in New Delhi.
"It will be a battle between competing ideologies, conflicting views of the history and a different vision for the future... it will be a battle for India."
After a decade in power, Congress is lagging well behind the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in opinion polls, with voters turned off by an economic slowdown and a string of corruption scandals.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is retiring after two terms, and the party had been expected to nominate Rahul, 43, as its choice for premier at the conclave.
But the prospects were dashed when Sonia Gandhi, the powerful party president and senior-most figure in the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, opposed the move at a meeting on Thursday night.
Rahul remains the party's chief election strategist.
Analysts have said the BJP's decision to project the divisive Narendra Modi as its choice for premier could limit its room for manoeuvre in post-election coalition negotiations — a trap that Sonia Gandhi is keen to avoid.
There has also been press speculation that Congress's expected defeat will be so comprehensive that the Gandhi family fears it could kill off Rahul's nascent political career.
But the clan's star power remains high and many in the party see Rahul as their best hope, despite his well-documented reservations about following in the prime ministerial footsteps of his father, grandmother and great-grandfather.
The party's general secretary said Sonia had effectively vetoed an otherwise unanimous decision by the Congress Working Committee on Thursday for Rahul to be announced as the choice for premier.
"She said: 'This is not the party's tradition. Just because some party has declared the PM candidate, does not mean that Congress will do the same'," Janardan Dwivedi told reporters.
The BJP has stretched its lead in the polls over Congress since its September decision to elevate Gujarat Chief Minister Modi — accused by critics of turning a blind eye to savage riots in his state in 2002.
In her speech, Sonia Gandhi launched a blistering attack on Modi.
"It (the election) will be a battle for the preservation of our age-old secular tradition," she said.
She referred to India as a fabric "whose vibrant beauty can be seen only as whole, a single fabric much bigger than the sum of all the strands", accusing the BJP of "stretching it to breaking point".
Prime Minister Singh picked up on the theme, contrasting the "inclusive and secular" nature of Congress with the BJP.
"I have no doubt that if we prepare well for the 2014 general elections and tell people about our achievements, we will win in the elections, Rahulji will win," Singh added in a show of support for Rahul Gandhi.
The BJP, however, accused the Congress of running scared by failing to nominate Rahul to go head to head with Modi, the son of a tea-stall owner who has been at the helm of one of India's most dynamic states for a decade.
"If they had done so there would have been comparisons, analysis vis-a-vis Narendra Modi and all surveys show that Rahul Gandhi stands nowhere in that," said Ravi Shankar Prasad, one of the BJP's leaders in parliament.
A survey last week said that only 14 per cent of voters believe Rahul Gandhi would make the best prime minister while 58 per cent opted for Modi.
Rahul Gandhi is often seen as a reluctant leader and his previous refusal to embrace the political spotlight has frustrated colleagues. His father Rajiv and grandmother Indira were both assassinated, and he once likened power to "poison".