Sonia Gandhi

PTI | ByTim Sullivan (Associated Press), New Delhi
May 15, 2004 09:31 PM IST

Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born Cong leader, is well on her way to be Republic of India's prime minister.

She first claimed the spotlight as the prime minister's wife, then as his widow. Now Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born opposition leader, could be thrust into the office once held by her husband and mother-in-law- both of whom were assassinated.

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Career Swing

Results coming in Thursday from India's five-stage parliamentary elections gave Gandhi's Congress party a wide enough lead that her rival, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee conceded defeat - a stunning upset. Gandhi also won her Parliament seat. By late Thursday morning, Congress officials were insisting Gandhi would be the next prime minister.

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"She will be the prime minister - hundred percent. For stability it is necessary that the prime minister be from the single largest party, that is the Congress party and our candidate is Sonia Gandhi," Ghulam Nabi Azad, Congress general secretary, said after meeting with Gandhi.

But the often reticent Gandhi refused to say directly whether she would be the next prime minister. Speaking at a raucous news conference late Thursday, she said her party this weekend would likely choose its parliamentary leader - a post she now holds.

Asked if that person would be the prime minister, she answered, "That's what usually happens."

But if Congress does lead the next government, it would only do so as an alliance with other parties - some of which have not made clear whether they'd accept a foreign-born prime minister. But certainly the 57-year-old Gandhi, widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was killed in a 1991 suicide bombing, was far closer to being prime minister than had been expected when elections began April 20.

Counting for the elections were held Thursday.

Mired in controversy

Most observers had predicted that the ruling alliance led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party would easily sweep to victory again, riding a surging economy, good monsoon rains and a sophisticated public relations campaign celebrating what they called "India Shining."

As for Gandhi herself, the BJP had hammered on her foreign origins, saying her Italian birth should keep her from becoming prime minister.

It was an argument she dismissed as unimportant. "They have so totally failed that they have to pick up this one issue," Gandhi, who became in Indian citizen in 1983, said in a rare television interview in February.

She told New Delhi Television that her foreign birth might work against her with some, but that in rural areas - especially among women and the poor - she was no outsider.

"I never felt they look at me as a foreigner," she said. "Because I am not. I am Indian."

A woman who had long tried to stay out of politics, Gandhi was thrust into national prominence with her husband's 1991 killing. Seven years later, Congress officials desperate for a prominent name to help rebuild their stumbling party, coaxed her into taking over its leadership.

Slowly, she became an increasingly visible presence in Indian politics, and has traveled constantly in recent months in her campaign to return Congress to power.

But she remains shy to the point of near-reclusiveness, and while she now regularly gives speeches in her Italian-accented Hindi, she almost never gives interviews or press conferences. Her critics call her inexperienced and inaccessible. On Thursday, notably, she hadn't made any statements by early evening. But her privacy has always been something she's desperately guarded.

In a memoir about Rajiv, she wrote that she "fought like a tigress" to keep the family's privacy as his mother, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, pulled him into political prominence. Whether intentional or not, she reminds many Indians of her mother-in-law: the way she wears her sari; her habit of forcefully striding ahead of her aides; the way she stretches out her arms to adoring supporters.

India's "videshi bahu": Personal history

She remains, in many ways, a "videshi bahu" - or foreign-born daughter-in-law. To her supporters, it's a term of endearment, a link to Indira and the political dynasty that remains wildly popular through much of rural India. To her critics, it's a reminder of her foreignness, and of the power she gained simply by marrying into that dynasty.

The daughter of a small building contractor and raised in a conservative Roman Catholic family outside Turin, Italy, Gandhi came to India as a 21-year-old bride.

She married into a family that had dominated Indian politics since independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, headed the country from independence until his 1964 death. He was followed by his daughter, Indira Gandhi, a woman chosen by party leaders because they felt they could control her, but whose often iron-fisted rule defined the next two decades of Indian life.

She was killed by her own bodyguards in 1984, and Rajiv, an airline pilot, was reluctantly forced into politics. Riding a wave of public sympathy over his mother's killing, Rajiv won the following election, but his attempts to open India's stagnant economy and shrink its bloated bureaucracy cost him a great deal of popularity. He lost power in 1989, and was killed two years later while campaigning.

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