Congress seeks salvation through Sonia

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SONIA GANDHI yesterday formally embraced her Indian destiny when a special session of the All-India Congress Committee rubber-stamped her appointment as the party's president.

A Congress party conclave is a quasi-religious ritual on a theme of Indian- ness: the ruling body, almost all dressed in white Gandhian homespun, long baggy robes, pyjama trousers or the baggy loin cloths called dhotis, squat on sausage-shaped bolsters to enact their business, while the modern world - the Indian media, in regular clothes - looks on.

From today, however, the leading role in the pantomime is played by a woman who would plainly be much more comfortable in a dress by Prada and an armchair by Magistretti.

But Mrs Gandhi has made up her mind. She was given the party's top job in a palace coup last month, after her octogenarian predecessor, Sitaram Kesri, had told the press that he intended to resign. Yesterday her position was regularised.

Thus Congress, founded 113 years ago by one foreigner (Allen Octavian Hume, British, described by an Indian historian as "erratic, paternalistic and domineering") has through the accident of a romantic attachment formed in Cambridge fallen into the hands of another. Rajiv Gandhi's widow now has the party entirely in her grip.

What will she do with it? "We need nothing less," she told the delegates, "than a complete revitalisation of the party. We have to return to a time when Congress was the instinctive first choice of the electorate."

Such a time is not ancient history: Congress ruled India with hardly a let-up for more than 40 years. But the falling-off has been swift and steep. As Mrs Gandhi reminded delegates, Congress is "the only party with supporters in every village in the country". But in the recent general election it gained less than one-third of the total seats, scarcely an improvement on its position in 1996. Had Sonia Gandhi not thrown herself into the campaign, the party might have suffered a terminal rout.

It has fallen victim both to rot within and fragmentation without: to the widespread perception that the party is full of corrupt and arrogant fat cats, and the increasing lure of regional and caste parties campaigning on micro issues. In a country as diverse and uncohesive as India, a party dedicated to the noble principle of secularism, is perhaps always at risk of falling apart as voters obey the more primitive urges of their tribes.

Whether Mrs Gandhi can revive Congress is anybody's guess. Her first challenge is to rebuff the Bofors arms bribery scandal that dogged her and Rajiv since the mid-1980s and which is back in the headlines now that the Hindu nationalist BJP is in power. Yesterday there were rumours that she was doing a deal with the government, offering mild, "responsible" opposition in return for a soft pedal on Bofors. If she is to do anything for her party, her first imperative will be to survive.