But that has not stopped Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, married into India's first political family, the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, from plunging into the hurly-burly of Indian politics.

 

"Well, that's part of political lives and my mother-in-law and my husband lived and died for the country. I don't believe they wished to die in any other way," Gandhi, 57, said in a recent interview.

 

Sonia is the widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi, a family that ruled the country for decades after Jawaharlal Nehru became the first prime minister of independent India in 1947.

 

Shrugging aside the tragedies that struck her family, India's main opposition leader has kept up a gruelling pace ahead of Monday's final round in the three-week election, addressing rally after rally to prop up her Congress party's poll prospects.

 

Sonia Gandhi has already assured
a place in Indian political history

Gandhi still trails behind her rival, popular Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee who leads the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party but opinion and exit polls show Congress doing far better than predicted.

 

She has accused the coalition of being in disarray, with polls showing Vajpayee's alliance struggling for a majority.

 

The entry of her charismatic children, son Rahul and daughter Priyanka, has helped her party's fortunes.

 

Rapturous welcomes

 

The heirs of the revered Nehru-Gandhi dynasty have campaigned for Congress seats in populous Uttar Pradesh along with their mother, receiving rapturous welcomes at rallies.

 

The entry of Rahul and Priyanka, both in their 30s, has been seen as a breath of fresh air for the party and has helped take some of the pressure of Sonia Gandhi, who has been seen as carrying the weight of the party on her own.

 

The entry of her children could also help defuse some of the criticism by the BJP about her foreign birth, which remains her biggest obstacle.

 

Priyanka, one of Gandhi's two
children to have entered politics 

Leading BJP campaigner Narendra Modi has used every opportunity to attack her foreign origin.

 

"Even before renting a house one asks the background of a tenant," he told a rally in New Delhi on Friday. "Does anyone know about the life of Sonia Gandhi before she married Rajiv?"

 

"How can we hand over the reins of the country to her?"

 

She dismisses the jibes and insists she is Indian. Often mocked for her "spaghetti English", she mostly speaks in Hindi, and wears traditional saris or salwar-kurtas (traditional Indian garments).

 

"Wherever I go, wherever I have been ... I have never ever been made to feel like I am not like everyone else, so it doesn't hurt at all," she said in an interview on the campaign

trail.

 

Reclusive widow

 

Many educated urban Indians are reluctant to vote for a foreigner as prime minister, but in her Rae Bareli constituency, people described Sonia as their "daughter-in-law". 

 

It is a long way from her days as a reclusive widow who rarely stepped out of her fortified bungalow in Delhi, and if she did, she never spoke a word.

 

Gandhi only entered politics in 1998 at the party's pleading following a crushing electoral defeat. The new leader, once called the "Sphinx", was forced to quickly change her inaccessible image.

 

Today, most of her speeches are peppered with emotional references to her family, especially her mother-in-law and husband, who was killed by a human bomber in Tamil Nadu state in 1991.

 

During an emotive rally in Tamil Nadu on Friday, Gandhi said she was ready to suffer the same fate as her husband and

mother-in-law.

 

Will Sonia Gandhi's Italian birth
count against her becoming PM?

"As I stand on this soil with which the blood of my husband

has mingled, I say I will not hesitate to share this honour,"

she said, dressed in an off-white sari.

 

India is a long way from where Sonia Gandhi was born, the daughter of a small-time builder in Orbussano near Turin.

 

At 18 she went to Cambridge, England, not, as detractors

often cattily note, to attend the university but to learn English.

 

There, the young Sonia Maino met Rajiv who was studying at Cambridge University. It was love at first sight.

 

Propelled into politics

 

Ignoring objections from her family, she married Rajiv in a Hindu ceremony at 21 and took up her role as dutiful daughter-in-law to his mother, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

 

When her pilot husband was propelled into politics after his brother's death in a 1980 flying accident, Sonia resisted the move fiercely.

 

"I fought like a tigress - for him, for us and our children, for the life we had made together, his flying which he loved, our uncomplicated, easy friendships, and, above all, for our freedom"


Sonia Gandhi

"I fought like a tigress - for him, for us and our children, for the life we had made together, his flying which he loved, our uncomplicated, easy friendships, and, above all, for our freedom," she wrote in a book on her husband.

 

"I was angry and resentful towards a system which, as I saw it, demanded him as a sacrificial lamb. It would crush him and destroy him - of that I was absolutely certain." 

 

Some say she is grooming her children for the future in case she does not make it to the prime minister's chair this time.

 

"Congress spin doctors have not been able to market Brand

Sonia and the fact is that she's the only one who's kept the

party together. This is a make-or-break election for her," said

Gandhi's biographer, Rashid Kidwai.