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Monday, March 16, 1998 Published at 08:29 GMT


Congress to choose new leader
image: [ Sonia Gandhi - a parliamentary role? ]
Sonia Gandhi - a parliamentary role?

India's Congress Party, with the second-largest bloc of MPs after the recent general election, meets today to choose a new parliamentary leader. The party selected Sonja Gandhi, widow of the slain former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, as party president at the weekend. The BBC's Daniel Lak reports from Delhi:

Congress Party sources aren't giving anything away, but there is no doubt that Sonja Gandhi is now fully in control of party affairs. The widow of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was given the organisational post of party president last Saturday.

Mrs Gandhi says she will be taking a very active role in party affairs and may also get a formal parliamentary role, even though she doesn't yet have a seat in the Indian parliament. Whether the Italian-born Mrs Gandhi openly becomes parliamentary leader matters less than her stated aim of rebuilding the party and running its affairs firmly and fully.

Mrs Gandhi deliberately did not run for office in the recent general elections, but now she says things are different.

With the BJP and its allies poised to take power later this week, Congress leaders say their party has to come together to fight what they term the threat to India's secular traditions.

The BJP does have its roots deep in Hindu nationalist ideology, but the government it forms will be a broad-based coalition. The agreed policies it will pursue bear little resemblance to the BJP's manifesto. That almost certainly means no construction of temples on disputed mosque sites, no uniform family code for all religious groups, and probably no ban on slaughtering cows for fear of alienating Muslim and Christian voters.

The prime minister-in-waiting, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, says he wants national consensus on all-important issues and his government will be for all Indians, regardless of community, caste or faith.


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