The prime minister's remarks at his press conference Friday that he will give "the baton" to a new PM after 2014 elections has set the stage for Congress leaders expressing their desire to see the party vice president Rahul Gandhi in the chair after Manmohan Singh.
The prime minister had also stated that Gandhi had "outstanding credentials" to be the prime ministerial candidate.
Though suggestions have been made in the past by Congress members about projecting Gandhi, 43, as the prime ministerial candidate, the party has not taken a firm decision on the issue. All that it has stated is that the prime ministerial candidate will be declared at an "opportune time".
Party sources said that those pushing for declaration of a prime ministerial candidate feel it will present voters with a clear choice. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has officially declared Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate and suggestions have started coming from within the AAP for projecting Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal as the prime ministerial candidate, though Kejriwal has declared he is not going to contest the Lok Sabha polls.
The Congress had projected Manmohan Singh as prime ministerial candidate in 2009 and the decision is reckoned as a factor that contributed to party's improved performance over its tally in 2004 Lok elections.
Congress sources said that those pressing for declaring Rahul Gandhi as prime ministerial candidate feel that the step will galvanise the party workers and inject momentum in the party's poll campaign. There is also a feeling that projection of Gandhi, who publicly slammed a proposed ordinance on convicted lawmakers, will help the party distance itself from perceived failures of Manmohan Singh government on issues of price rise and corruption.
A session of the All India Congress Committee is being held here Jan 17 and there is growing speculation that Gandhi could be declared prime ministerial candidate at the meet.
On his part, Rahul Gandhi has been taking a more active stance on issues after the party's drubbing in the assembly polls last month. He sought to take political credit for government's push for the passage of Lokpal bill and clearly articulated his economic vision at an event organised by a business chamber. He also held a meeting of party chief ministers to deliberate on the issue of price rise.
Party sources said there was also a view in the party that projecting Gandhi as PM candidate at this stage may not be the best strategy due to the nature of challenge before the Congress. This section feels that Congress prospect do not appear to be very bright and a sharp downslide in performance could affect Gandhi's long-term political prospects.
B.R.P. Bhaskar, Thiruvananthapuram-based political commentator and media veteran, said that prime minister's announcement had set the stage for transition at leadership level in the Congress.
"As a party Congress is held together only with dynasty at top. Whether they make a formal announcement (about Gandhi's candidature) or not, there is no question that PM comes from the 'family' unless the member voluntarily steps down," Bhaskar told IANS.
He added that the Congress did not have a tradition of announcing a candidate. "If a situation emerges where Congress is in a position to form government, Rahul Gandhi will certainly be the prime minister."
Bhaskar said the elections would not see a presidential election-like contest between Gandhi and Modi because India was a parliamentary democracy.
He said there were many political parties in fray and with Aam Aadmi Party's emergence "situation has changed".
Bhaskar said AAP will have an impact, particularly in urban areas.
"The urban population has grown to considerable size and (AAP) can make a difference... There was a study which said that there were 160 constituencies where internet can play a significant role," Bhaskar said.
He said if AAP wins around 30 seats in Lok Sabha polls, "it will be a force that can't be ignored".
Analyst Rizwan Qaiser, who teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia University, said that Rahul Gandhi's projection "as prime ministerial candidate was a foregone conclusion".
"The party is also under compulsion from inside and outside following BJP projecting Modi as prime ministerial candidate," Qaiser told IANS.
Qaiser said the odds were against the Congress in 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the party has "a herculean task" on its hands.
"Rahul Gandhi is a sincere man but there appears a disconnect between him and the masses. He needs to shore up," he said.
He said that the BJP and the Congress will fight the polls on the basis of their organisational strengths and it will not simply be Modi versus Gandhi contest. He also said that Kejriwal has "occupied centrestage for the past month eclipsing Modi".
"Kejriwal's party will register its presence with vehemence in Lok Sabha polls," Qaiser said and added that the one-year old party could win over 30 seats.
Political commentator Kuldip Nayar said the contest appears to be between Gandhi and Modi and also Kejriwal.
Nayar, however, said he did not think Congress would declare Gandhi as prime ministerial candidate due to the results of assembly polls in which the party fared poorly.
"They want to keep it that way (and not declare prime ministerial candidate)," he said.