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India's Election: Sonia reels in the crowds for Congress

In the software city of Bangalore, Sonia Gandhi launched her campaign for India's Congress Party in earnest yesterday. And for the first time she demonstrated her power as a crowd puller.

What is the point of Sonia Gandhi throwing herself into the Indian election campaign? The point is to remagnetise the great electrode of Indian politics that Congress used to be, to reawaken the memory among India's poor of the all-embracing paternalism of Congress in its glory days, and bring back, like so many iron filings, all those who have drifted off to other parties. That was how one senior Congress figure put it to me in Bangalore this afternoon as Mrs Gandhi's campaign got under way in earnest.

Her first meeting last Sunday was just a foretaste, a necessary genuflection at the gate of martyrdom. But Congress support in Tamil Nadu long ago withered away beyond revival and the meagre crowd which gathered at the place of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination had an unmistakable bused-in look.

So here in the "Garden City" in Karnataka state, where Congress is still a force, she faced her first important test. Outside Congress headquarters tribal drummers banged away while aparatchicks in white homespun kurta and pajama milled about busily inside. The town, the most fashionable and one of the most prosperous in the country, was draped in welcome banners, lurid pink and mauve paintings of "Madam" that did her no favours, signs reading "We are honoured to have our charismatic presence in the Congress", and "Sonia - perfect personality". With very little to go on, the party's myth-making machine has gone into overdrive.

The rally built slowly and steadily until it was of an awesome size. Across the playground of a school, its perimeter dominated by massive cut-outs of Sonia, Rajiv and the party's much-anathematised president Sitaram Kesri, Congress cranked out the old time religion. Nehru's tryst with destiny speech, with which he greeted independence, other speeches from other times, the lilt of the classical singer MS Subhalakshmi, and a rampaging movie tune with new words eulogising the dynasty, all these blared out across the ground.

And slowly it filled. The crowd, 90 per cent male, predominantly young, poor but not ragged, had come from all over the state, from up to 500km away. Among them was a good spattering of the minorities - Jains, Christians, "Tribals" - which traditionally voted Congress but which drifted off to other, newer parties like Janata Dal during the years of Congress's decline, and who must now be lured back. Only the women from the Banjara community really stood out, draped in bright gowns covered with mirrors, hair clasped in pewter bangles the size of pepper pots, babies clamped to their waists.

There was the usual attempted misinformation about numbers. Congress claimed they were expecting 400,000. At 4pm, when Sonia arrived, nearly an hour late, there might have been 60,000. It was certainly a healthy number, and though brought in en masse there was electricity in the air. Then a cute showbiz touch, pure Bollywood: a helicopter flew over, showering the audience in jasmine and marigold petals.

But Sonia opened her mouth, and the voltage fell away. If she was really one of nature's orators, it probably wouldn't have taken Congress seven years to get her to make her maiden campaign speech. She had all the elan and charisma of a woman reading the lesson at Mass because it was her turn again. The greeting (in Kannada, the local language) went down a storm. After that, for half an hour, there was a distinct sense of 60,000 people studying their cuticles. The name "Indira" woke them up briefly. She tramped across the ground she covered earlier in the week: her private grief, the country's need, the threat of diversity, the nation's potential, Congress's achievements.

Then almost at the end she did it: mentioned the taboo word "Bofors". Sonia has been entangled - Rajiv too, while he lived - since the mid-1980s in allegations of corruption concerning an enormous arms deal with the Swedish firm, Bofors. The scandal has dogged Sonia's heels, without ever coming out and mugging her. Today, against all expectation, she rounded on it. "The full truth [about the scandal] has yet to be revealed. I have often wondered why. Tell us, Tell us, tell us", she cried. "I will be the happiest person if only they name the people responsible. Because on that day my husband will be vindicated. Because it will be proved" - now her voice rose and cracked with emotion - "that the case was nothing but a vicious attempt to destroy his reputation."

At last, as the speech ended, she had done it, she had reconnected the audience to the mains, and the translation of her (English) words was greeted with whistles and cheers.

It is not surprising that the one subject on which Sonia Gandhi shows real passion concerns her private hurt and bitterness. But it will be interesting to discover how galvanic such emotion can be across India. For there can be few countries where cynicism about politicians is more deeply ingrained, and the Gandhis are not exempt.