Mrs Gandhi enters fray

India's election battle moved into full swing yesterday, with the beleaguered Congress party announcing the entry of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's widow into the fray.

Bringing an end to weeks of silence, during which leaders of her late husband's party had called for her support, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi said she would campaign for a Congress victory in the spring poll.

The return of the once hugely popular and charismatic Nehru-Gandhi family to the political stage came amid signs that the Congress party's arch- rival, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was well in the lead. An opinion poll for the India Today weekly showed that the BJP, which has backed a moderate leader, was set to substantially increase its strength in parliament.

Congress put India on course for its second elections in less than two years last month by cutting off crucial support for the minority United Front government.

The Congress party suffered its worst electoral rout amid allegations of corruption in 1996, five years after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by a suicide bomber.

- Reuters, New Delhi

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