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Wednesday, April 21, 1999 Published at 19:01 GMT 20:01 UK

World: South Asia

India's ruling dynasty

By South-Asia Analyst Alastair Lawson

The leader of the Congress party in India, Sonia Gandhi, has said that she hopes to form a government in the country.

Although its not clear exactly what role she intends to play within the proposed administration, her announcement once again places a member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty at the forefront of Indian politics.

[ image: Pandit Nehru: India's first prime minister]
Pandit Nehru: India's first prime minister
The Nehru-Gandhi name has been prominent in India's politics for the last 100 years.

Pandit Nehru was the country's first prime minister and like his father, Motilal, active in the campaign to win India's freedom from the British.

Although the Nehru family is not related to Mahatma Gandhi - revered to this day as India's founding father - Pandit Nehru worked alongside him in the struggle for independence.

They were the key leaders in the Congress party and shared the same ideology, despite occasional tensions in their relationship.

When Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu extremist in 1948, Pandit Nehru was the obvious choice as his political successor.

He took advantage of the widespread popularity enjoyed by the Congress party throughout India to become prime minister.

New ally

During his tenure in power, India allied itself closely to the Soviet Union and closed its economy to Western investment.

[ image:  ]
After Pandit Nehru's death in May 1964, a sucessor from the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty soon assumed power. His daughter, Indira (married to Firoz Gandhi, a lawyer not related to Mahatma) became prime minister in 1966 and remained in power for 11 years.

This period will be best remembered for her decision to introduce emergency powers, which she said were necessary to preserve democracy.

Mrs Gandhi essentially took control of the day-to-day running of the country, in some cases by-passing parliament altogether. Introduced in June 1975, the state of emergency was the closest India has come to abandoning its post-independence democratic traditions.

Mrs Gandhi's tactic was deeply unpopular, and was probably the reason why she lost the elections of April 1977.

However, she was not out of power for long. In 1980 she was re-elected for another tenure of power.

Murdered by bodyguard

Her most significant decision was to authorise the storming of the Golden Temple in the state of Punjab. This cost her life, as she was murdered by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984.

However, by this time, another member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty had emerged to succeed her, even though her youngest son and chosen heir, Sanjay, had earlier been killed in an air crash.

[ image: Rajiv Gandhi: Assassinated in 1991]
Rajiv Gandhi: Assassinated in 1991
Her oldest son, Rajiv, was an unassuming airline pilot and a reluctant convert to politics. Such was the public clamour for him to take up the family mantle that he became prime minister immediately following her death.

Like his mother, Rajiv was probably killed for his decision to authorise the use of force: In his case the deployment of Indian troops in Sri Lanka to enforce a peace settlement.

So unpopular was this decision among the island's Tamil Tiger rebels that they are the chief suspects for his murder while he was campaigning as leader of the opposition in 1991.

Rajiv's wife Sonia is now one of the favourites to become the next Indian prime minister. In the next millennium there will inevitably be pressure on their children, Priyanka and Rahul, to follow in the family tradition.

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