Just fine if Manmohan isn't thrice-shy

New Delhi, March 29: Most Congress leaders have found nothing wrong or surprising in Manmohan Singh's remark leaving open the option for a third term, though some feel he should have echoed party workers' desire to see Rahul Gandhi as Prime Minister.

Asked by reporters yesterday whether he would accept another term in office if Congress president Sonia Gandhi made an offer, the Prime Minister said: "These are all hypothetical questions. We will cross that bridge when we reach there."

The Prime Minister's cryptic remark became the topic of discussion among Congress leaders at different levels and many wondered if Singh, 80, was ready for another term despite his age. A few leaders argued he should have mentioned the need for new leadership and the desire in the party to make Rahul the next Prime Minister.

But the majority of leaders felt there was no scope for him to express such sentiments at a time the stability of his government was being called into question.

A top party functionary told The Telegraph : "He gave the safest reply. He has to be there like a rock at this juncture when there is a question mark on the fate of the government. There are still more than 12 months left for the elections and a lot of work has to be done. He cannot throw any hint of retirement at this stage as it will impact the morale and authority of his government even as he knows Rahul will become Prime Minister if the Congress has the numbers."

Congress spokesperson Rashid Alvi appeared to suggest the speculation was meaningless.

"Manmohan Singhji is not only the Congress's Prime Minister but the country's Prime Minister too, and is respected all over the world. We have said several times that he is our Prime Minister till 2014. We don't know why there is this speculation about the next Prime Minister before the election."

Alvi pointed out that the Prime Minister had himself never expressed any desire for another term and refused to answer the hypothetical question.

Asked if the party was prepared to project Singh as the prime ministerial candidate, like it did before the 2009 election, Alvi said: "That decision will be taken at the appropriate time. But we can say that the 2014 election will be fought under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi (and Sonia Gandhi, he added hastily as an afterthought) and it is the desire of every Congressman to seen Rahulji as Prime Minister."

Asked if one should assume that Congress workers don't want Singh to continue and get a third term, Alvi said: "I won't react to that interpretation."

Minister of state for parliamentary affairs Rajiv Shukla too said the Prime Minister had said nothing to suggest he was ready for a third term. "In my view, he was responding to a pointed question. And what has he said? He has only said that we will cross the bridge when we come to it."

Another senior leader, Satyavrat Chaturvedi, said there was nothing surprising in the Prime Minister's statement and on the contrary he had refused to answer a question that should not have been asked a year before the election.

Many Congress leaders explained in off-the-record conversations that it was difficult to write off Singh at this stage as Rahul won't be ready to take the mantle if the party's Lok Sabha tally fell sharply below the 200-mark. They say continuing with Singh for a year or more would be the best bet under those circumstances.

Another view is that Rahul himself would like to work under Singh for a while before assuming the top office. But the leaders also insist that the time to speak with clarity on these subjects had not come and the Congress would do nothing at this stage to weaken Singh's authority.

They argue at the same time that Singh cannot undermine his own authority by expressing reluctance to endure, or readiness to retire, a year before the next election as bureaucracy reads these signals very carefully.

Another section of Congress leaders asked why a serving Prime Minister, who enjoys the confidence of Sonia and Rahul, should step aside and let somebody else to take his position.

These leaders believe Singh will relinquish office only if he is convinced Rahul is ready to step in and Sonia wants a change at the top.