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Monday, April 19, 1999 Published at 08:47 GMT 09:47 UK

World: South Asia

Sonia Gandhi: Heir to a dynasty

Sonia Gandhi campaigning in her constituency, Bellary

By South Asia analyst Alastair Lawson

In India, the leader of the opposition Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, is standing for the first time as a candidate in the forthcoming general elections.

Indian Elections 99
Full results
It follows her decision last year to take over the leadership of Congress after coming under strong pressure from the party hierarchy.

And if her bid for power succeeds, Mrs Gandhi will become India's first foreign-born prime minister.

Reluctant campaigner

Sonia Gandhi is the widow of the former Indian prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi.

[ image: Rajiv Gandhi: Thrust into the limelight]
Rajiv Gandhi: Thrust into the limelight
Born and brought up in Italy, she met him while studying languages in England and they married in February 1968.

He was elected prime minister in 1984 on what was widely seen as a sympathy vote after the assassination of his mother, Indira.

It was with some reluctance that Sonia campaigned alongside him, becoming an Indian national, adopting the sari and learning Hindi.

[ image: Rajiv's death left Congress demoralised]
Rajiv's death left Congress demoralised
She married into a family steeped in politics. Her mother-in-law, Indira, was India's first woman prime minister.

Indira's father Jawarhalal Nehru, was the country's first prime minister.

Given these connections it was inevitable that when Sonia Gandhi's husband was murdered while campaigning in 1991, questions were immediately asked as to whether she would take up the family mantle.

Massive appeal

Initially, Sonia Gandhi was reluctant to step into the political fray. She kept herself and her children at a distance from active politics.

[ image: Celebrations after Sonia Gandhi becomes Congress leader]
Celebrations after Sonia Gandhi becomes Congress leader
However, she has often graced ceremonial occasions, most memorably at a nation-wide Congress Party conference in June 1996.

She stole the limelight at a party rally intended to mark what would have been Rajiv's 50th birthday simply by turning up while, politely but firmly, resisting demands to take a seat on the podium.

In India, the Gandhi name still has some magic for the masses.

Crowds have been heard to shout "Sonia Gandhi, Zindabad!" (Long live Sonia Gandhi!)

Almost every visitor of importance to Delhi pays a courtesy call at Number 10, Janpath - the home of the Gandhis where Sonia has continued to live.

Politicians too are known to be regular visitors - particularly those in the Congress Party eager to be seen alongside what is arguably the most prestigious name in Indian politics.

Party pressure

In the years following Rajiv's death Sonia gradually became more immersed in politics.

[ image: Sonia Gandhi is garlanded by supporters to celebrate the fall of BJP-led coalition]
Sonia Gandhi is garlanded by supporters to celebrate the fall of BJP-led coalition
In December 1997 she announced that she would campaign for the Congress party in elections that were held the following year.

Then as now the party was not in a healthy state. It had suffered numerous setbacks including the resignations of several senior party leaders, including two former ministers.

Last year, under pressure from the Congress hierarchy, Sonia Gandhi became the party leader.

Support weakened

Mrs Gandhi's political inexperience sometimes outshone the charisma surrounding the family name.

That was graphically illustrated in April when she was prominent in forcing a vote of confidence in the Indian parliament, and confidently asserted that the Congress party and its allies would have enough support to from a government with an overall majority.

In fact, Congress and its allies has no-where near enough support, and many independent observers blamed her for playing a significant role in triggering India's third general election in four years.

She has also had an uneasy relationship with the Indian press, and has seldom allowed herself to be interviewed on a one to one basis.

Her key political statements are mostly announced by Congress spokesmen.

Controversy over nationality

Dissatisfaction with Sonia Gandhi's leadership came to a head in May when a prominent Congress member, Sharad Pawar, left Congress to form a rival party because he said India could not have a foreign prime minister.

The issue of Mrs Gandhi's nationality has also been highlighted by her political opponents.

Some in the government have openly supported proposed legislation that would ban a person born outside of India from becoming prime minister.

Yet without Sonia Gandhi the Congress party would be short of big names: she is arguably the only hope the party has to re-establish its position as the dominant force in Indian politics.

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