NEW DELHI, India -- On the eve of the ceremonial cremation of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's body, his widow rejected yesterday his political party's request that she step into the vacuum created by his assassination.
Less than a day after Indian Congress Party senior leaders dramatically offered her its presidency, Sonia Gandhi issued a -- brief statement saying that she was "deeply touched" by the request but that "the tragedy" of her husband's killing "does not make it possible for me to accept."
Whether the Congress Party can find a leader was only one of the questions still unanswered in the wake of Mr. Gandhi's killing.
There is speculation here -- fueled by meetings between leaders of other parties and India's president -- that a new, non-partisan "national government" might be formed to see the country through the coming elections or to serve even longer in the event that the vote led to a hung Parliament.
The killing of Mr. Gandhi also remained a mystery. No group has claimed responsibility, and forensic evidence indicates that the perpetrator was a woman who was handing him flowers.
Mrs. Gandhi's refusal to carry on the political dynasty of her husband's family may not be the final act in this political drama, however.
The sudden, unexpected turn of events may be only the start of a political roller-coaster ride, as India's politicians resume their jockeying for power with only three weeks before the postponed national elections are resumed.
Congress Party leaders, who said Wednesday that they were certain the Italian-born Mrs. Gandhi would accept their offer, did not appear particularly upset at her unwillingness.
The party leaders said they would begin meeting today to select a president. But, even as they made that announcement, they were passing out news releases with statements from regional party leaders lauding Mrs. Gandhi's selection.
Some observers familiar with the inner workings of the party, which has led India for all but four of its 44 years of independence, believe that the stage is now set for a bit of political theater in which Congress leaders return again to the grieving Mrs. Gandhi. They sketched a scenario in which Congress leaders might repeatedly beseech her to take up her husband's post, while orchestrating a mass campaign aimed at increasing the sympathy engendered by Mr. Gandhi's assassination Tuesday night.
"They have to go back to her," said B. R. Chopra, the editor of a Hindi-language weekly, who has close ties to the Congress Party. "The public sympathy is with her, and the party needs that to win the elections.
"Whatever she says, she is the actual leader of the Congress Party right now. It has no other leader," he said.
A Delhi-based Western diplomat termed this scenario "a very real possibility," saying that the coterie of non-elected party leaders around the Gandhi family need her in order to avoid an outbreak of factional infighting that could tear the troubled party apart.
"They have gotten all their power over the years through their association with the Gandhi family, and they are desperate to maintain power," the diplomat said. "Their entire future depends on her."
He said he believed that Mrs. Gandhi genuinely did not want to enter politics.
Nonetheless, he said, the possible campaign to persuade her to reconsider her decision could even begin with demonstrations of support for her during Mr. Gandhi's nationally televised funeral procession today.
It was not entirely clear yesterday whether a non-partisan "national government" is feasible under India's constitution. And some analysts believe that it will not come about simply because India's contentious political parties could never come to an agreement on who would serve as prime minister.
Speculation also continued here about the bomb blast that took the 46-year-old former prime minister's life as he was about to deliver a campaign speech in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
Forensic evidence from the scene points toward the possibility that the explosives were gelatin sticks carried on the backside of an "abdominal belt" worn by a woman on an apparent suicide mission.
The explosives were triggered as the woman greeted Mr. Gandhi with flowers, the reports said. The unidentified woman was "blown to bits," the investigators were quoted as saying.
No one has taken responsibility for the assassination. Some politicians have accused a group supporting Tamil separatists waging a guerrilla war in Sri Lanka, prompting that group to issue a denial.
Meanwhile, hurried preparations for Mr. Gandhi's cremation with full state honors were in full swing yesterday. The ceremony will take place in a well-manicured historic park on the west bank of the Yamuna (Jumna) River just northeast of the older portion of Delhi.
It appeared that Mr. Gandhi's funeral pyre will be set up roughly between a two-story-high rock commemorating the spot where Indira Gandhi, Mr. Gandhi's mother and predecessor as prime minister, was cremated after her assassination in 1984, and a much larger memorial marking the site of the 1948 cremation of Mohandas K. Gandhi, the leader of India's independence struggle (no relation to Rajiv Gandhi), who was assassinated in 1948.