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Thursday, May 13, 1999 Published at 19:28 GMT 20:28 UK

World: South Asia

Congress defends Gandhi's Italian roots

Sonia Gandhi's nationality is becoming a key election issue

India's Congress Party has come out strongly in defence of its president, Sonia Gandhi, to try to end the continuing controversy about her Italian origins.

Daniel Lak: The issue of Sonia Gandhi's nationality just won't go away.
In a statement, Congress said Mrs Gandhi had renounced her ties to Italy, the land of her birth, 16 years ago when she became an Indian citizen.

A newspaper in Delhi had published reports alleging that she was on an Indian voting list several years before becoming a citizen.

Her political opponents in the ruling BJP had demanded an explanation.

Election issue

The issue of Mrs Gandhi's nationality is set feature prominently in India's forthcoming elections, due in September.

[ image: Vajpayee's BJP: Leading the attack]
Vajpayee's BJP: Leading the attack
Sections within the BJP are said to feel that the party will benefit by highlighting the issue.

Others, including Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, would like the party to distance itself from an approach that is negative.

But some of his party's more radical members, including the hawkish home minister, L K Advani, recall that a similar attack on Rajiv Gandhi over an arms scandal delivered rich dividends to an opposition coalition in 1989.

The power of a name

Several political commentators believe, however, that the BJP's move is pre-emptive, an attempt to influence public opinion ahead of the elections.

The Congress Party is likely to bank heavily on Mrs Gandhi's ability to draw votes as the natural inheritor of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

Her decision to campaign for the party during the last elections energised party workers and helped contain the party's declining electoral fortunes.

The Congress Party's failed bid to form an alternative Indian government, after the defeat of Mr Vajpayee's coalition by a solitary vote, has left the party somewhat dispirited.

The party is now looking to their leader to deliver during the lengthy campaign over a scorching Indian summer.

According to the BBC's Daniel Lak, journalists and commentators say it appears that Indian voters don't have a problem with where she was, born but might question whether as a political novice she is qualified to run the country.

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