NEW DELHI (AP) — Members of India's ruling Congress party erupted in rapturous applause Friday for Rahul Gandhi, heir to the country's Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, who is leading the struggling party's campaign for a general election in May.
Congress announced late Thursday that the party will not formally declare Gandhi as its candidate for prime minister — a bit of political maneuvering aimed at protecting the 43-year-old from being a scapegoat for his party's problems.
But the election is still seen as a contest that pits Gandhi against a powerful opposition figure, Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party has significant momentum after trouncing Congress in state polls in December.
The state polls were seen as a gauge of voter sentiment in India, a country of 1.2 billion people and the world's biggest democracy.
On Friday, thousands of Congress party leaders and workers hoisted posters of Gandhi and shouted "We want Rahul for PM" during a meeting in New Delhi to prepare for the upcoming polls. They were asking Sonia Gandhi, the current head of the Congress party and Rahul's mother, to reverse her decision not to formally declare him as a candidate.
Rahul Gandhi was expected to address the crowd later Friday.
But the euphoria comes at a time when the Congress party's stock is low, battered by corruption scandals, internal feuding, and an inability to deal with a stumbling economy and deep-rooted problems with poverty, infrastructure and education.
Modi, meanwhile, has been chief minister of western Gujarat state for the past 11 years and is credited with turning it into an industrial haven. Critics question whether the Hindu nationalist chief can be a truly secular leader over India's many cultures.
Sonia Gandhi played on those fears Friday, telling the gathering in New Delhi that the election "will be a battle for the preservation of our age-old secular traditions."
Political rivals and human rights groups have accused Modi of looking the other way while his state suffered one of India's worst outbreaks of religious violence in 2002.
The riots occurred after a fire killed 60 passengers on a train packed with Hindu pilgrims. Hindu extremists blamed the deaths on Muslims, but the cause of the blaze remains unclear.
Modi has denied any role in the Gujarat violence and says he bears no responsibility for the killings.
Manmohan Singh has been India's prime minister for the past 10 years but said this month he would not seek another term. A technocrat, he was chosen to fill the prime minister's seat in 2004 by Sonia Gandhi, the widow of assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
But he has been widely seen as a regent, keeping the seat warm until Rahul Gandhi was ready to take what some see as his birthright.