Gandhi’s widow encouraged to lead Congress Party

NEW DELHI, India (AP) — She seldom speaks in public. When she does, every word is carefully analyzed.
So when Sonia Gandhi put down her fee of 1 rupee — about 3 cents — to renew her membership in the Congress Party last week, many in India wondered: Why? And why now?
Six years after her husband was assassinated, the widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi is seen by supporters as the only person who can save India’s once-mighty Congress Party — now riven by rivalries, shamed by scandals, and humiliated by a 1996 election defeat that toppled it from power after nearly a half-century.
Party workers were delighted by Mrs. Gandhi’s unexpected decision to rejoin the Congress Party after years out of it, and immediately urged her to take over its leadership, hoping she could return it to power and prestige.
“Sonia Gandhi decided to join the party to revive its credibility, which is at its lowest point in history,” declared Arjun Singh, a Congress politician close to Mrs. Gandhi.
The Gandhi name still commands deep respect across India. Three generations — Rajiv, his mother, Indira and his grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, were prime ministers for 37 of India’s 50 years of independence.
On Wednesday, Mrs. Gandhi marked the anniversary of the May 21, 1991, bombing that killed her husband and 17 others at an election rally in southern India.
While she sat at Gandhi’s mausoleum, near memorials to his mother and grandfather, supporters in pickup trucks cruised around New Delhi carrying tall plywood likenesses of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi and playing mournful tunes over loudspeakers.
“Like the Kennedys, the Gandhi family has always been in politics,” said New Delhi teacher Lakshmi Sharma. “They have done much for the country. I will definitely vote for Sonia if she contests.”
In keeping with her enigmatic image, Mrs. Gandhi, 50, has not revealed her political plans — if she has any — to the public.
The Italian-born Sonia is a silent celebrity in India. Her photograph is often on magazine covers or newspaper front pages, though she has not granted an interview in years.
Newspapers and magazines frequently poke fun at her mysterious side.
“Mona Lisa Makes Her Move,” the respected news weekly “Outlook” said in a cover story, superimposing her face on the Mona Lisa painting.
Her silence sometimes arouses suspicion. “The moment she opens her mouth, she will lose that mystique,” political commentator Narendran Nair predicted.
Mrs. Gandhi didn’t hide her aversion to politics when her husband was alive. When he was murdered, she rejected an invitation to take his place as party leader.
Since then, she has refused any political role, devoting herself to a charitable foundation created in her husband’s name and funded mainly by the government.
Still, her influence is enormous. Prime ministers regularly consult her, foreign dignitaries routinely call on her, and she is the sounding board for all Congress leaders.
The Sonia-for-president chorus — always heard in the party — grew louder last month when the Congress leader, Sitaram Kesri, suddenly withdrew support from the governing coalition, plunging the nation into weeks of political turmoil.
Kesri’s move was seen as an abortive and embarrassing bid for power. A new coalition government took office on April 21, but it was not led by Congress as Kesri had planned.
Recent polls indicate Congress would do better in elections under Mrs. Gandhi’s leadership.