A Gandhi Rivets Politics Once More

India's First Family

What does an Italian-born Roman Catholic who speaks faltering Hindi have to do with the future of Indian politics?

Plenty, if that person is Sonia Gandhi, widow of slain Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and bearer of the most powerful name in Indian politics. With just over two months to go before the midterm general election, the Gandhi political dynasty is back in the limelight, even if its last protagonist is playing her cards close to her chest.

"Sonia keeps congressmen guessing again," screams a headline in the Indian Express. "Efforts to rope in Sonia may succeed," prophesies the Pioneer newspaper.

But, like Mona Lisa in a sari, the enigmatic Mrs. Gandhi refuses to divulge what is really on her mind.

Despite enrolling as a primary member of the Congress Party last May, the first lady of Indian politics has given no signal that she will lead her moribund party to victory.

Conventional wisdom suggests that signal will never come. In 1984, Gandhi cradled the body of her mother-in-law, Indira, after she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. Seven years later, Gandhi accompanied the coffin of her husband back to Delhi after he was blown apart by a suspected Tamil Tiger suicide bomber.

Today she and her two children, Priyanka and Rahul, are on the most-wanted list of any number of terrorist groups. Campaigning for the Congress Party would expose her to the same risks her husband faced. When Congress implored her to take over from her dead husband as party president, she firmly but politely refused.

With Congress badly divided and demoralized, there are many in the party who see Gandhi as their last chance. Party President Sitaram Kesri says Congress would "regain its strength" if she were its leader. Party spokesman V.N. Gadgil says, "to the common people of this country, her presence would have an enormous emotive appeal," because of the allure of the Gandhi name. "The people do not see her as a foreigner. After her husband died she behaved like an Indian widow would behave, keeping his memory alive and devoting herself to social work."

According to Pran Chopra, political scientist for the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, "if Sonia was to campaign, it would certainly unite and inspire Congress members, but whether she can pull in the votes remains to be seen."

Not everybody in India feels the same way as the centrist Congress Party about Gandhi, least of all the main right-wing opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and its fiery Hindu nationalist followers.

"Mrs. Gandhi's grief over her husband's death should not be used for political gain. That is manipulative," says BJP spokeswoman Sushma Swaraj. "She cannot rescue the Congress; people will not vote for Congress just because Mrs. Gandhi is leading them."

Gandhi's foreign birth would also be targeted by the BJP, says Ms. Swaraj, as would her family's alleged involvement in a multimillion dollar arms-for-bribes scandal in the late 1980s.

For now, it seems that the guessing game will continue until campaigning starts in late January.

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