Sonia Gandhi: Reviving a party's fortunes

Tamil rebels assassinated her husband at a political rally, her mother-in-law was shot dead by her own security guards at their home and her brother-in-law died piloting his plane.

    The Gandhi family is a mainstay of Indian politics

    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 t

    hey 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 b

    een 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



    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



    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



    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



    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



    "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.

    SOURCE: Reuters


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