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Thursday, June 10, 1999 Published at 07:35 GMT 08:35 UK

World: South Asia

Congress rebels: 'Sonia unfit to lead'

The party started after three rebels were expelled from Congress

Rebels from India's Congress Party have launched a sharp attack on Congress leader Sonia Gandhi at the inaugural session of their breakaway group.

Sharad Pawar, one of three former Congress leaders, described Italian-born Mrs Gandhi as "totally unfit to become the prime minister of the country."

Mr Pawar, a former defence minister, as well as former parliament speaker Purno Sangma and MP Tariq Anwar all took part in a revolt last month against Mrs Gandhi's leadership.

The rebels were sacked from Congress, and have now set up their own Nationalist Congress Party.

"Sonia undoubtedly loves India, yet she remained Italian for 15 of the 30 years she has been in India," Mr Pawar said.

Borrowing symbols

Nearly 5,000 delegates from all over India are attending the inaugural conference of the new party.

Sanjeev Srivastava in Bombay: Hoping to project itself as a national force
Hoardings, cut-outs and posters of the leaders of the new party have been pasted all over Bombay and dozens of welcome gates have been erected on roads leading to the conference venue in central Bombay.

The leadership of the new party has already hinted that it will keep its distance from both the nationalist BJP and the Congress Party.

But the breakaway party still leans heavily on the legacy of the more than 100 year-old Congress party - evident from its election symbol, which is the spinning wheel immortalised by Mahatma Gandhi during India's freedom struggle.

Could be regional force

The BBC's Sanjeev Srivastava, reporting from Bombay, quotes observers as saying the party is unlikely to go far on symbolism alone, as not many senior national leaders have joined the new party.

He says that unless more national leaders join them, the Sharad Pawar-led Congress may just remain a regional party.

But even as a regional outfit, they can play a crucial role in the formation of the next government if no party gets a clear majority in the general elections.

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