Congress left in turmoil by Gandhi's ploy

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INDIA'S CONGRESS Party is in a state of turmoil, left stunned and confused by Sonia Gandhi's decision on Monday eve-ning to tender her resignation as party president.

Less than a month ago, Mrs Gandhi seemed on the point of becoming India's prime minister. She had told President K R Narayanan that she commanded the support of half the MPs in the lower house. Then a key ally deserted her, and nothing seemed to have gone right since for the Italian- born widow of Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1991 while serving as prime minister.

On Monday her party's ruling body, the Congress Working Committee (CWC), held an emergency meeting to discuss an extraordinary letter sent to Mrs Gandhi by three senior party members the previous day.

The men, who include Mr Sharad Pawar, a powerful politician in Maharashtra, and Mr P Sangma, the articulate former speaker of the Lower House, urged Mrs Gandhi to propose a constitutional amendment allowing only "natural- born Indian citizens" to become India's president, vice-president or prime minister. Such an amendment, the letter went on, would be in line with Mrs Gandhi's concern to "revive and rejuvenate" the party.

The challenge was couched in honeyed words, citing the "maturity and dignity" which Mrs Gandhi, nee Maino, had brought to the office of Congress president, but the sting in the tail was sharp: as prime minister was "the most difficult job in the world", Congress should respect the demand of the average Indian that his prime minister should have "some track record in public life".

Mrs Gandhi has worked as au pair, housewife and picture restorer, but her political career is less than 18 months old.

On Monday the CWC met to decide what to do about this broadside, but Mrs Gandhi effectively hijacked the occasion by submitting her written resignation, saying she was "pained" by the lack of confidence in her. "Though born in a foreign land," she went on, "I chose India as my country. I am Indian and I will remain so till my last breath. India is my motherland, dearer to me than my own life."

The CWC took only 10 minutes to decide to reject her resignation, and yesterday saw a flurry of copycat resignations as party figures famous and obscure symbolically threw themselves on their swords in the effort to persuade her to reconsider.

In Bombay party activists began an indefinite hunger strike, while in Madras 23 Congress volunteers were arrested after burning an effigy of a party dissident, Sharad Pawar. Across the country the party that has ruled India for most of the past 50 years seemed in total disarray.

With hindsight, the controversy was bound to erupt. During the last election campaign 15 months ago, when Mrs Gandhi made her solo political debut, Congress's allies and opponents alike tiptoed around the "foreigner" issue.

Sophisticated Indians were anguished by the prospect of Mrs Gandhi as their leader, but analysts claimed the uneducated masses were immune to such misgivings. As the daughter-in-law, mother and suffering widow, Mrs Gandhi had earned her rightful place in India's ruling dynasty.

But there is a fear that new evidence in the Bofors scandal, which left Rajiv Gandhi accused of taking massive kickbacks from the Swedish arms company, could emerge before the autumn general election.

Congress's core problem is that dynasty is the one thing that held the party together. Now, it appears, not even that will do the trick.