Gandhi critics are expelled by party

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INDIA'S CONGRESS party took the drastic step last night of expelling three high-ranking party members whose letter to Sonia Gandhi on Sunday provoked the party's worst crisis for years.

In their joint letter, which chimed with recent attacks on the Congress president by the party's deadly foe, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Sharad Pawar, Purno Sangma and Tariq Anwar urged her to propose a constitutional amendment barring the posts of president, vice- president and prime minister of India to people of foreign origin. Mrs Gandhi herself is of Italian origin, and was born and raised near Turin.

Taking the letter as a personal attack, Mrs Gandhi stunned Congress on Monday by resigning. Party members, from the governing elite to the rank and file, have been putting themselves into desperate contortions all week in the effort to make her change her mind, so far in vain.

The street outside Mrs Gandhi's home in Delhi has become a sort of festival of grief, as despairing party members in their thousands stream past with banners and loud hailers. The pavement is lined with open marquees in which dozens of hunger striking Congress supporters sit cross-legged in traditional white clothes.

Grim-faced senior party people troop in one after another with their own personal pleas, and leave looking just as gloomy. Some activists have taken drastic steps: a party worker called Manju Sachdev poured paraffin over herself but was arrested before she could set it alight. In the city of Bhopal, police used water canon to thwart a group of Congress workers who were on the point of immolating themselves. Party members in West Bengal sent their appeal to Mrs Gandhi in the form of a letter written with their own blood.

Besides asking her followers to desist from murdering themselves, Mrs Gandhi has given no hint all week of what she is thinking, thus reverting to the "sphinx" and "Mona Lisa" mode for which she is celebrated. But Congress leaders are reading grim significance into the fact that she has cancelled all engagements she had planned for tomorrow, the 8th anniversary of the assassination of her husband, Rajiv Gandhi, except for a visit to where he was cremated.

After his death, Mrs Gandhi was voted in as Congress president without being asked whether she wanted the job. She told the party bluntly that she didn't, and the party spent the next six and a half years trying to persuade her to be its figurehead.

Whatever her limitations as a politician - and her experience only goes back a year and a half, to the last general election campaign - there is no doubt that her symbolic presence as leader gave a shot in the arm to a party that seems so dependent on the charisma of dynasty. Now she is sulking again, and the party is terrified that all the ground so painfully gained will be lost.