THE family of assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has retreated in grief within a fortress of security. But many Indian political observers feel the close-knit Gandhis remain a keystone of the country's political future.
Since Gandhi's assassination one month ago, his Italian-born widow, Sonia, has been pressed to become president of his Congress (I) Party.
The Congress move was widely criticized, and Mrs. Gandhi refused. Many Congress workers and some analysts say her refusal cost the party sympathy votes that would have given it a solid ruling majority in the election.
As Congress leaders struggle to choose a parliamentary leader who would become prime minister, the late Rajiv Gandhi's cronies look beyond this election. Many whose political and personal fortunes are tied to perpetuating the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty hold out hope of involving Sonia and her 19-year-old daughter, Priyanka.
In recent days, the Gandhi faction within the Congress Party has stepped up efforts to involve Sonia in party decision-making.
"A lot of power still rests at No. 10 Janpath," a Congress official says, referring to the Gandhi's house. "They want to use Sonia's name to keep control. And she hasn't definitely said 'no.' "
In the long-term, Gandhi loyalists want to convince Sonia to run for the parliamentary seat in Amethi, the family's longtime constituency in Uttar Pradesh State where she campaigned extensively for her late husband and knows many people by name. Recently, family friends have been circulating word that Mrs. Gandhi is not averse to that idea.
Priyanka Gandhi also is figuring more prominently in the Congress's long-term plans, party officials and political analysts say.
Poised and stately, the New Delhi college student captured the public imagination as she supported her mother during the family's ordeal, took charge of the funeral arrangements, and met her brother, Rahul, at the airport as he returned from the United States.
"She reminded me so much of her grandmother," says Rajrani Sharma, an admiring businesswoman, referring to the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who also was assassinated. "She has the same dignity and grace."
Family friends say Priyanka has long expressed an interest in politics and may be willing to head the Congress youth wing, which has been offered to her. Her more retiring brother, Rahul is expected to return to his studies at Harvard.