Sonia brings Gandhi magic to India poll

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The decision by Sonia Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi's widow, to campaign for the Congress Party has galvanised India's latest general election, writes Peter Popham in Delhi. But the outcome of the voting is almost certain to be another coalition.

The world's biggest democracy will begin voting in its general election on 16 February, the election commissioners in Delhi announced. So vast is the area that polling in India's 543 constituencies will take place over four separate days, finishing on 7 March, and counting will begin two days after that.

It is less than two years since Indians last voted in a government, and the result was so inconclusive that there have since been three prime ministers, the first of whom held power for only 13 days.

But the coming election is shaping up to have at least more human interest than the last one, thanks to Sonia Gandhi's decision last week to campaign on behalf of Congress.

As the only politically active member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which has governed India for most of its first 50 years, her decision immediately changed the complexion of the contest. Until then the Hindu nationalist BJP, long the "fascist" or "communalist" bogeyman of Indian politics, seemed to be heading for its first real breakthrough.

In 1996 the BJP won 177 seats, more than any other party and 42 more than Congress - but with its high-minded refusal to enter alliances with regional or caste parties, it found itself some 70 seats short of a majority.

In recent months it has jettisoned its claim to purity and entered the same horse-trading as the other parties. As a result it has spread tentacles into the east and south where previously the BJP's message of Hinduism, Mother India and economic reform meant little.

Then on New Year's Eve the most famous enigma of Indian politics, Rajiv Gandhi's widow Sonia, finally played her hand, and changed everything.

Although she has lived in India for 30 years, she has never played any active part in politics, and the assassinations of her husband and her mother-in-law, Indira, make her security on the stump a fearful problem. She is, of course, Italian by birth and upbringing. Yet few people doubt her participation will improve Congress's prospects.

"She was never created by God to win elections," said one local analyst. "After 30 years of living here her Hindi is still awful. But this is an electorate where every second person is illiterate, where only a fraction of people read newspapers, which has worshipped idols for thousands of years and which has been dominated by Congress for decades. Of course she will make a difference."

Much may depend on how many constituencies she is able to visit and how many voters are going to be moved by having seen the living legend. Congress's problem has been that its president, the octogenarian Sitaram Kesri, lacks popular appeal, and the party is essentially leaderless. In a recent opinion poll, Mrs Gandhi was the second choice for prime minister, behind the BJP incumbent Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Her inexperience makes it unlikely that she would be thrust into such a role. She was yesterday making supportive noises about Dr Manmohan Singh, an economist and a popular finance minister who drove through the reforms of 1991 that transformed the country's economic prospects. A Sikh, it is argued he would pose a serious challenge to Mr Vajpayee.

The one thing almost certain,however, is that there will be another coalition. With more than one-third of voters supporting minority parties, the days of national party dominance seem to be gone for good.