But leaves the timing of the announcement uncertain

In the clearest indication to date, the Congress on Friday hinted that party vice-president Rahul Gandhi would be its prime ministerial candidate for 2014, though it continued to leave the timing of the announcement uncertain. This came within hours of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh saying at a press conference that he would not be the Congress’ prime ministerial nominee for a third time.

“After Sonia Gandhi, the next most important leader in the Congress is Rahul Gandhi, and whenever the question who should be our prime ministerial candidate comes up, only one name crops up — Rahul Gandhi,” party general secretary Janardan Dwivedi said on Friday.

That (Mr. Gandhi would be the prime ministerial candidate), he added, was the “principle,” but there was also a “ritual.” Political parties have certain formalities, and when that would happen making a formal announcement possible “is something on which there is no further scope left for the party to say something officially when Congress president Sonia Gandhi has already said that the candidate will be declared at an opportune time,” he said.

Mr. Dwivedi was referring to Ms. Gandhi’s statement twice last month that the Congress would announce its PM candidate “at an opportune moment.” The first occasion was when she addressed the press on December 8 after the results of the Assembly elections came in. She repeated the same statement on the Congress Foundation Day on December 28.

Providing the rationale for what he said on Friday, he recalled that when the manifesto for the last general elections was released, Ms. Gandhi made it clear Dr. Singh was the prime ministerial candidate; in the succeeding years, it was stressed repeatedly that he would continue in that capacity till 2014. When the Congress was looking for a presidential candidate in 2012, Dr. Singh’s name came up, Mr. Dwivedi pointed out, but it was clarified that he would remain Prime Minister.

“Today, the Prime Minister has himself said he is not going to be the candidate for the next general election, and therefore, the circumstances have changed,” Mr. Dwivedi said.

Responding to a question, Dr. Singh said on Friday: “I am not going to be a candidate for prime ministership if the UPA were to come back to power. Rahul Gandhi has outstanding credentials to be nominated as the [prime ministerial] candidate. I hope our party will take that decision at the appropriate time.”

In the past, whenever Congress leaders were asked whether Mr. Gandhi would be the party’s prime ministerial nominee, the answer always was: Dr. Singh is the PM and will remain so till 2014: and as long as he is in the chair, discussing the name of the next prime ministerial candidate will undermine his position.

Now, with the Prime Minister ruling himself out of the race, his party colleagues clearly feel free to talk about his successor, should the UPA win a third term. It has also fuelled speculation on the timing of such an announcement: while party functionaries said it was not on the agenda for the AICC meeting slated for January 17, they did not rule out the possibility of there being a vociferous demand by party colleagues that Mr. Gandhi’s name be announced that day. But whether the party leadership would accept that “demand” remains to be seen, they added.

Key party leaders, among them Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, had argued that naming Mr. Gandhi as party candidate would be key to taking on Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi had also said Dr. Singh “should complete his term and Rahul Gandhi can be projected as the next leader of the party after that”.

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