Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, left, also called out Narendra Modi for anti-Muslim riots that took place in Gujarat state under his watch in 2002.Harish Tyagi/AFP/Getty Images; Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made unusually scathing comments Friday about opposition leader Narendra Modi, who is leading in several opinion polls, saying it would be "disastrous" if Modi were to become prime minister in elections due by May.
Comments from the usually soft-spoken Singh came on the same day he ruled himself out of serving another term as prime minister. Singh instead threw his support behind MP Rahul Gandhi — the 43-year-old heir to India's Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty — to lead the country if their Congress Party remains in power.
"Rahul Gandhi has outstanding credentials to be nominated as the ... candidate, and I hope our party will take that decision at an appropriate time," Singh said.
Compared with the relatively untested Gandhi, Modi has years of experience as the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, where he has built a reputation as a business-savvy and investor-friendly administrator.
Modi, a member of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is campaigning on a platform to end the red tape and graft that have bedeviled the Congress-led coalition.
But he has been unable to fully shake off allegations that he didn't do enough to protect people during anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002, in which at least 1,000 people were killed, most of them Muslims. Modi denies wrongdoing, and a Supreme Court investigation found no evidence to prosecute him.
On Friday, Singh made a pointed reference to the riots under Modi's watch when dismissing a suggestion that he has been a weak prime minister.
"If by strong prime minister you mean that you preside over the mass massacre of innocent citizens in the streets ... I do not believe that is the sort of strength this country needs. Least of all in its prime minister," said Singh.
BJP leaders were quick to condemn the comments. Spokeswoman Nirmala Sitharaman said on her Twitter account she was "utterly disappointed" by Singh's remarks, and a senior party leader, Arun Jaitley, said Modi's three election wins to become chief minister of Gujarat proved he had voter support.
The 81-year-old Singh, an economist by profession, has presided over India for a decade at the head of coalitions led by the Congress Party. As finance minister 22 years ago, he deftly ushered in reforms of a state-shackled economy that helped launch years of rapid growth.
But on Friday, with growth at a decade low, he conceded that the government had failed to generate employment in manufacturing, to control inflation and to combat corruption.
Those problems will make it a difficult campaign for Gandhi, who has largely failed to win votes for his party when campaigning in state elections — if he is chosen to lead the Congress into the vote.
"In a few months' time, after the general election, I will hand the baton over to a new prime minister," Singh said at a rare news conference, adding a "new generation" would guide the country.
The Congress is due to hold a top-level meeting on Jan. 17 and is expected to announce its candidate soon afterward.
Gandhi used to head the Congress Party's youth wing and is the party's vice president. His mother, Sonia Gandhi, is the party's president.
Many Congress members, particularly younger legislators, are calling for Gandhi to be made the prime ministerial candidate quickly because they hope that would rejuvenate the party's image and deflect public anger with current leaders.