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Madam makes a move

Having turned her back on public life after her husband's murder, Sonia Gandhi is back on the podium. Jan McGirk examines whether the legacy of being part of India's major political dynasty will be too much for the Italian-born widow to bear

Next week, Sonia Gandhi will address a rally at the very spot in southern India where her husband Rajiv was blown to bits by a suicide bomber during the 1991 Indian election campaign. It is a new beginning for the widow of the Indian prime minister. Dutiful wives and daughters of former rulers are frequently elected to top positions in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. But in India, Sonia Gandhi spurned this tradition. She politely declined to enter politics and withdrew from public life for almost six years after her husband's murder. Paranoid about security since discovering the bleeding body of her mother in law, Indira Gandhi, in her back garden in 1984 after Sikh bodyguards had turned their guns on the prime minister, Sonia is suddenly willing to face the risks of politicking in the world's largest democracy - albeit guarded by Black Cat commandos with Sten guns.

It was only last Thursday that Madam, as she is always addressed, finally relented and announced that she had joined the ailing Congress Party. Although she was born in Italy, Sonia Gandhi's status as an icon for India's most venerable political party comes from her connection with two martyred prime ministers. Mahatma Gandhi, who was also felled by an assassin, is no relation, but his name resonates alongside hers.

Many Indians, inured to nepotism in national politics, now expect this demure widow to revitalise Congress after the recent rifts over scandals, corruption and self-serving power plays by senior politicians who have diminished its clout. The Hindu right is gaining strength, and 57 per cent of voters recently polled in New Delhi would prefer the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the leftist coalition which now rules with Congress support.

Though her only field of expertise is her finicky hobby of restoring damaged oil paintings, Sonia Gandhi may have the ability to create a new canvas out of the party wreckage. That is the only thing on which senior Congress officials agree, and they may be willing to bend party rules to let her become an active member eligible for office. She reportedly told a confidant: "I am joining Congress to restore its unity."

If the Congress Party constitution is strictly followed, Ms Gandhi must certify that she is "a habitual wearer of khadi", the home-spun cloth popularised by the Mahatma when he was leading the independence movement, even though she often wears exquisite silk saris and biscuit-coloured shawls woven of fine pashmina wool, delicate enough to pass through a wedding ring. She must also pledge to "abstain from alcoholic drinks or intoxicants" and to "do a minimum of one week's manual labour every year". Her weekend residence, an impressive private estate south of New Delhi set in acres of flowering fields, would probably push her over the Congress "property ceiling" if it were valued at market rates. Finally, Ms Gandhi must promise that she "usually uses swadeshi goods" - articles manufactured in India. Her hankering for great wheels of imported Parmesan cheese might hinder her here. But the party that claims credit for opening up India's economy would waive anachronistic Soviet-era rules. Sitaram Kesri, the Congress president known as "an old man in a hurry", is likely to oblige.

The daughter of a building contractor from Orbassano, just outside Turin, Sonia Maino first met Rajiv Gandhi while working as an au pair in Cambridge, where he was studying engineering. They married in 1968. He was blithely apolitical, aspiring only to be a commercial jet pilot for Air India, which he was for 14 years. But when his younger brother Sanjay died in a plane crash, Rajiv Gandhi acquiesced to the demands of his grieving mother and entered politics - though Indira reportedly believed that Sonia might prefer a divorce to being a politician's wife.

Wrapped in a sari, with her eyes shielded in Jackie O dark glasses, Sonia Gandhi easily assumed the role of India's First Widow with a quiet dignity. Visiting heads of state invariably call on her, though she holds no official position in the government. When Hillary Clinton visited India two years ago, protocol demanded that the American First Lady visit the Gandhi residence at 10 Jan Path before the two women could meet officially elsewhere.

After consistently snubbing her husband's old cronies in public and being protected for years by a coterie of influential friends in the capital, Sonia Gandhi, at 49, has either honed her political instincts, or perhaps has developed a taste for adulation. She first showed up at a Congress Party conference two years ago and drew a tumultuous response. She clung to the armrests of her chair during the applause and could not be coaxed up to the speaker's platform, where she would have been flanked by giant cardboard cut-outs of her dead family.

Cynics point out that the timing of Sonia Gandhi's announcement may not be out of concern for the future of Congress, but in hopes of scuttling a 10-year investigation into a pounds 11 million kickback scandal involving the Swedish arms firm Bofors, in which her husband was implicated. As premier, Rajiv Gandhi stalled an official probe despite knowing that pay- offs had been received, according to senior government sources. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is expected to file its long-delayed report this week. Furthermore, if the BJP were eventually to gain power, Sonia Gandhi fears that their government might take over the six public trusts she manages in the name of the fallen Gandhis.

Her critics allege that by working on two books about her husband's life, Sonia Gandhi has energetically whitewashed his reputation. But what really interest pragmatic politicians are the bank passbooks in Sonia's possession. "Why else would all these politicos be kowtowing to her over the years? She has the evidence which could make or break them," a political analyst suggests.

Sonia's daughter Priyanka, now 25 and old enough to run for public office, might be the best Gandhi to galvanise party loyalty. Most have written off the playboy son, Rahul, for his lack of interest in politics. Priyanka is lean and tall, with an uncanny resemblance to her grandmother Indira, who is remembered not only as the Cruella de Vil of the Indian Emergency but as the provider of long years of stability. For now, however, all the moves are up to her mother, who generally keeps mum. She has spoken just twice to the press in 20 years, once in 1992 to The Independent. The Indian press calls her "The Sphinx" and "Mona Lisa".

On the stump beside her daughter Priyanka in Amethi, the Gandhis' stronghold in Uttar Pradesh state, it was shy Sonia Gandhi who captured the sympathy vote that let Congress squeak through to win in 1991. She plans to speak there again soon, and this time her Hindi will be less halting. Madam is coming into her own n